July 05, 2012
By LARRY MARGASAK and PETE YOST | Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department declared Friday that Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to withhold information about a bungled gun-tracking operation from Congress does not constitute a crime and he won’t be prosecuted for contempt of Congress.
The House voted Thursday afternoon to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt for refusing to turn over the documents. President Barack Obama invoked his executive privilege authority and ordered Holder not to turn over materials about executive branch deliberations and internal recommendations.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, the department said that it will not bring the congressional contempt citation against Holder to a federal grand jury and that it will take no other action to prosecute the attorney general. Dated Thursday, the letter was released Friday.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the decision is in line with long-standing Justice Department practice across administrations of both political parties.
“We will not prosecute an executive branch official under the contempt of Congress statute for withholding subpoenaed documents pursuant to a presidential assertion of executive privilege,” Cole wrote.
In its letter, the department relied in large part on a Justice Department legal opinion crafted during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Frederick Hill, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, said it is regrettable that “the political leadership of the Justice Department” is taking that position. Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, is leading the effort to get the material related to Operation Fast and Furious.
Although the House voted Thursday to find Holder in criminal and civil contempt, Republicans probably are still a long way from obtaining documents they want for their inquiry into Operation Fast and Furious, a flawed gun-tracking investigation focused on Phoenix-area gun shops by Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The criminal path is now closed and the civil route through the courts would not be resolved anytime soon.
“This is pure politics,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Remarkably the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the attorney general knew of Operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.
“No evidence, so if you have no evidence as he has stated now about the White House and the attorney general, what else could this be but politics?”
More than 100 Democrats walked out of the House chamber to boycott the first of two contempt votes, saying Republicans were more interested in shameful election-year politics than documents.
Republicans demanded the documents for an ongoing investigation, but their arguments focused more on the need for closure for the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Two guns identified by the Fast and Furious tracking operation were found near his body after a shootout in Arizona.
Democrats promised closure as well, but said a less-partisan Republican investigation was the only way to get it.
Adding to the emotion of the day, the family of the slain agent issued a statement backing the Republicans.
“The Terry family takes no pleasure in the contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Such a vote should not have been necessary. The Justice Department should have released the documents related to Fast and Furious months ago,” the statement said.
The contempt votes happened on the day that Obama’s health care law survived in the Supreme Court, prompting some Democrats to speculate that the votes were scheduled to be overwhelmed by news stories about the ruling.
About five hours after the court ruled, with news sites flooded with information about the health care ruling, the House voted 255-67 to declare Holder in criminal contempt.
A second vote of 258-95 held Holder in civil contempt and authorized the House to file a lawsuit.
In past cases, courts have been reluctant to settle disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
The issue became more complicated when Obama invoked a broad form of executive privilege, a legal doctrine designed to keep private certain communications of executive branch agencies.
Issa’s committee will consult with the House counsel’s office about a court challenge to the administration’s decision not to cooperate, spokesman Frederick Hill said.
The documents were written after Fast and Furious was shut down. The subpoena covered a 10-month period from February 2011, as the Justice Department expressed growing concern that the Fast and Furious operation had employed a risky investigative tactic known as “gun-walking.” In early December 2011, the department finally acknowledged that the initial denial of gun-walking was in error.
Republicans said the contempt citations were necessary because Holder refused to hand over documents that could explain why the Obama administration took 10 months to acknowledge the gun-walking.
In Fast and Furious, ATF agents abandoned the agency’s usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased, often as soon as they were taken out of gun shops. Instead, the goal of the tactic known as “gun-walking” was to track such weapons to high-level arms traffickers, who had long eluded prosecution, and to dismantle their networks.
Gun-walking long has been barred by Justice Department policy, but federal agents in Arizona experimented with it in at least two investigations during the George W. Bush administration before Operation Fast and Furious. These experiments came as the department was under widespread criticism that the old policy of arresting every suspected low-level “straw purchaser” was failing to stop tens of thousands of guns from reaching Mexico, more than 68,000 in the last five years. A straw purchaser conceals that he is buying guns for others.
Fast and Furious identified more than 2,000 weapons suspected of being illicitly purchased. But agents lost track of many of the guns. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered.
June 28, 2012
By MIKE BAKER |
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — President Barack Obama’s campaign has recruited a legion of lawyers to be on standby for this year’s election as legal disputes surrounding the voting process escalate.
Thousands of attorneys and support staffers have agreed to aid in the effort, providing a mass of legal support that appears to be unrivaled by Republicans or precedent. Obama’s campaign says it is particularly concerned about the implementation of new voter ID laws across the country, the possibility of anti-fraud activists challenging legitimate voters and the handling of voter registrations in the most competitive states.
Republicans are building their own legal teams for the election. They say they’re focused on preventing fraud — making sure people don’t vote unless they’re eligible — rather than turning away qualified voters.
Since the disputed 2000 presidential election, both parties have increasingly concentrated on building legal teams — including high-priced lawyers who are well-known in political circles — for the Election Day run-up. The Bush-Gore election demonstrated to both sides the importance of every vote and the fact that the rules for voting and counting might actually determine the outcome. The Florida count in 2000 was decided by just 537 votes and ultimately landed in the Supreme Court.
This year in that state alone, Obama and his Democratic allies are poised to have thousands of lawyers ready for the election and hope to have more than the 5,800 attorneys available four years ago. That figure was nearly twice the 3,200 lawyers the Democrats had at their disposal in 2004.
Romney has been organizing his own legal help for the election. Campaign attorney Ben Ginsberg did not provide numbers but said the campaign has been gratified by the “overwhelming number of attorneys who have volunteered to assist.”
“We will have enough lawyers to handle all situations that arise,” he said.
The GOP doesn’t necessarily need to have a numerical counterweight to Obama’s attorneys; the 2000 election showed that experienced, connected lawyers on either side can be effective in court.
Former White House counsel Robert Bauer, who is organizing the Obama campaign’s legal deployment, said there is great concern this year because he believes GOP leaders around the county have pursued new laws to impede the right to vote.
“The Republican Party and their allies have mapped out their vote suppression campaign as a response to our success in 2008 with grass-roots organization and successful turnout,” Bauer said. “This is their response to defeat: changing the rules of participation so that fewer participate.”
Several states with Republican leaders have recently pursued changes that could make voting more difficult, including key states such as Florida and Ohio, despite objections from voting rights groups that believe that the laws could suppress votes from low-income and minority blocs.
Republicans dispute that the laws are political, pointing to cases of election fraud and arguing that measures like those requiring voters to show identification are simply common sense. Pennsylvania’s Republican House majority leader, Mike Turzai, however, told GOP supporters over the weekend that the state’s new ID law “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
Independent from the Romney team, a conservative group is prepping an Election Day team of its own to combat possible fraud.
Catherine Engelbrecht, president and founder of True the Vote, said the organization hopes to train and mobilize up to one million volunteers this year, many of them to serve poll watchers. One of the group’s main initiatives is to “aggressively pursue fraud reports.”
“Being a poll watcher is an age-old tradition and we’re fortunate that so many volunteers are ready and willing to take a day off, learn what they need to know and help out at the polls,” Engelbrecht said. True the Vote already has thousands signed up to help and had 500 trained election workers monitoring the Wisconsin recall vote earlier this month.
“They serve as volunteer guardians of the republic, to ensure that procedures at the polls are in keeping with state law,” she said.
It’s one of the efforts that have Obama’s team fretting. The Democrats fear that anti-fraud activity could get out of hand, with vigilante poll watchers targeting and intimidating voters who may not know their rights.
“We will have the strategy and the resources to address the threat and protect the voter,” Bauer said.
The Obama-aligned attorneys, most of whom are not election experts by trade, undergo training and have materials to show them how to help at the polls on Election Day.
Charles Lichtman, who is helping advise the effort in Florida this year after leading it in the last two cycles, first created the Florida Democratic Lawyers Council after the 2000 election, vowing that there would never be a repeat of that disputed vote. He contends Democrat Al Gore would have won the presidency over Republican George W. Bush if a similar legal infrastructure had been in place then.
Lichtman’s efforts have since been replicated for other states. He said that is vital to provide voter protection.
“My experience has been that, in every election, the other side has taken drastic measures to try to suppress the vote,” Lichtman said. The volunteer organization has not been involved in the 2012 legal disputes so far, though they are monitoring the developments.
Four years ago, the teams of lawyers organized by Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in 2008 went largely unused since the election wasn't very close.
But this year may be different given all the changes to voting laws — and the closeness of the race in recent polling.
The states with the strictest ID laws require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots. If they don’t have proper identification or fail to bring it, they can cast a provisional ballot but must later go to meet with state elections administrators to sort things out before the ballot is counted.
Voting groups see a variety of potential problems, such as how voters are informed of the rule changes, how poll workers handle voters who fail to bring IDs and whether voters are provided adequate notice of the steps they need to take after casting an absentee ballot.
About 30 states have some form of an ID law, with varying methods of implementation.
Legal challenges typically start coming in the weeks before the election, but “litigation has started coming sooner and more vociferously” this year, says Edward Foley, an elections law expert with Ohio State University. That includes lawsuits surrounding Florida’s plan to purge ineligible voters from the rolls.
Foley said. “We’re in an era of increased litigiousness over the voting process.”
He said lawsuits after Election Day may occur only if votes in a battleground state are within the “margin of litigation.” That would probably be a difference of just hundreds of votes, a result that would be rare.
By TOM RAUM |
WASHINGTON (AP) — Contempt of Congress? Subpoenas? Stonewalling?
Maybe there’s a smoking gun in the Republican-led investigations of the Obama administration — and President Barack Obama’s pushback. But a large part of them could be what always goes on during a presidential campaign: political gamesmanship.
It ranges from House GOP contempt threats against Attorney General Eric Holder to Obama's waving a to-do list in the face of lawmakers.
Within two weeks, Obama fired a new pair of volleys across the bow of the congressional GOP leadership.
The first was his decree — bypassing Congress — that theU.S.will not, in most cases, deport illegal immigrants who were brought to theU.S.as children. The other was his assertion of executive privilege to shield certain internal Justice Department documents from a House subpoena.
Both actions drew expressions of GOP outrage in Washington and on the campaign trail.
The documents involved a botched U.S. gun-trafficking operation that was designed to track firearms headed into Mexico but which led to the disappearance of thousands of weapons and the 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
House Speaker John Boehner said Terry’s family deserved answers about the guns that killed him and went so far as to suggest a White House cover-up. Others specifically likened the actions of Obama and Holder to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
That may seem like a bit of a stretch, but in an election year outsized charges and countercharges tend to swirl.
Executive privilege has been claimed by presidents going back to George Washington to hide the inner workings of their administrations from congressional eyes.
As a senator, Obama sharply criticized President George W. Bush's invocation of executive privilege — a blast from the past Republicans were quick to exploit.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s team leaped into the fray. “President Obama’s pledge to run the most open and transparent administration in history has turned out to be just another broken promise,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
Holder insisted he and his aides have spent countless hours cooperating with Congress and already have provided nearly 8,000 documents on the ill-fated operation.
Escalating tensions on Capitol Hill are likely to intensify as the Supreme Court rules later this week on Obama’s health care law and lawmakers face June 30 deadlines on a crucial transportation reauthorization bill and a scheduled rise in student loan interest rates.
The pattern of investigations by Republican-led House panels recalls the many congressional probes during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
They ranged from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, which led to an impeachment vote by the House, to probes of the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, the Clinton's Whitewater property dealings in Arkansas, Hillary Rodham Clinton's investment gains, the workings of her health care task force and the mass firing of the White House travel office.
“There were 80 different investigations roughly between 1995 and 2001, and that doesn’t include the later investigations of Clinton’s 11th-hour pardons and gifts,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. He noted that some of the same committees that relentlessly investigated Clinton are now pursuing Obama.
Light called the gun-trafficking probe and the contempt of Congress threat against Holder “a highly partisan effort to create a big issue for the 2012 election to undermine Obama's credibility through this particularly flawed operation.” But he also suggested that Obama’s use of executive privilege “makes him look like he might be hiding something.”
In any event, Light said such politically charged probes can “tarnish both the president and Congress.”
It isn’t only Republicans who investigate. When Bush sat in the Oval Office, congressional Democrats launched high-profile probes of the secret deliberations of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force and the Justice Department’s 2006 midterm firing of nine U.S. attorneys.
The myriad investigations of the Clintons, however, transpired against a far different backdrop than now.
“In Clinton’s time, the economy was relatively good and getting better. In Obama’s time, it’s relatively bad and getting worse,” said Doug Schoen, who served as Clinton’s pollster and who has criticized Obama’s economic performance.
“The picture of intransigence coming out of Washington is not helpful to the president,” Schoen said. And, borrowing a Watergate-era term, he added: “Stonewalling can’t help Obama. I’m not sure it will hurt him, but it certainly can’t help him.”
The strictly party-line contempt recommendation came last week from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, even though its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., later acknowledged that Congress has no evidence of a White House cover-up such as alleged by Boehner and several other GOP lawmakers.
Boehner said Wednesday the House will move forward with the contempt of Congress vote against Holder on Thursday, after last-minute talks with the White House failed to resolve the impasse.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, quoting Issa, on Monday told reporters, “The chairman said over the weekend that there was no evidence — let me repeat — no evidence of White House involvement in any cover-up or attempt to cover up this issue.”
Holding an attorney general in contempt of Congress would be unprecedented. It also would probably be unenforceable since it is the Justice Department itself — headed by the attorney general — that must act on such recommendations.
“It’s clear that this is nothing more than a political witch hunt to distract from the fact that Republicans in Congress have no interest in focusing on what we need to focus on, which is jobs and the economy,” said Democratic Party chief Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
The gun-trafficking probe joins ongoing ones into theCaliforniasolar-panel company Solyndra, which received a $528 million federal loan from the Obama administration before filing for bankruptcy protection and laying off 1,100 workers.
By ED WHITE | Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — The Supreme Court ruling that banned states from imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles offers an unexpected chance at freedom to more than 2,000 inmates who had almost no hope they would ever get out.
In more than two dozen states, lawyers can now ask for new sentences. And judges will have discretion to look beyond the crime at other factors such as a prisoner’s age at the time of the offense, the person’s background and perhaps evidence that an inmate has changed while incarcerated.
“The sentence may still be the same,” said Lawrence Wojcik, a Chicago lawyer who co-chairs the juvenile justice committee of the American Bar Association. “But even a sentence with a chance for parole gives hope.”
Virtually all of the sentences in question are for murder. When Henry Hill was an illiterate 16-year-old, he was linked to a killing at a park in Saginaw County and convicted of aiding and abetting murder.
Hill had a gun, but he was never accused of firing the fatal shot. Nonetheless, the sentence was automatic: life without parole. He’s spent the last 32 years in Michigan prisons.
“I was a 16-year-old with a mentality of a 9-year-old. I didn’t understand what life without parole even meant,” Hill, now 48, said Tuesday in a phone interview.
He heard about the Supreme Court decision while watching TV news in his cell.
“I got up hollering and rejoicing and praising God,” said Hill, who would like to renovate homes and be a mentor to children if he’s released. “The last three or four years, they always put young guys in with me.”
The ruling also alarmed families of crime victims. Jessica Cooper, prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., said her office has been taking calls from “distressed” relatives.
“Now they’re going to start all over,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take years.”
The Michigan Corrections Department said 364 inmates are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed before turning 18. The prisoners now range in age from 16 to 67.
In Monday’s 5-4 decision, the high court said life without parole for juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. More than 2,000 people are in U.S. prisons under such a sentence, according to facts agreed on by attorneys for both sides of the case.
It’s possible that some inmates will win immediate release. Judges could also impose new sentences carrying a specific number of years and a parole review. Some inmates could still be kept locked up for life.
“Judges have options,” said Deborah LaBelle, a lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The Supreme Court said to look at juveniles individually: their age, family background, peer pressures, home environments.”
LaBelle said she took a phone call from 34-year-old inmate Kevin Boyd, who was 16 when his mother killed his father. Boyd had given her the keys to his father’s apartment, was aware of her threats and was convicted of murder.
After hearing of the court’s decision, Boyd told LaBelle that he slept “with hope on my pillow for the first time in 15 years.”
Back in 1996, Saulo Montalvo was a 16-year-old getaway driver in a fatal store robbery in Grand Rapids. He never stepped into the store but was convicted of murder and sent away for life.
“My mom and dad had gotten divorced, and I thought I had something to do with it,” he said of his teen years. “I placed this burden on myself and began to act out. I gravitated toward people who were into minor crimes, drinking and smoking marijuana, and sought their acceptance. ... I was so broken by what I had done.”
He said the victim’s family has long forgiven him. And if released, Montalvo said, he could “be a benefit to the society I left behind.”
The judge who sentenced him, Dennis Kolenda, didn’t like the punishment but had to follow the law.
“A community that’s got a soul has to recognize children are different, and we need to treat them as different,” said Kolenda, who is now retired. “Some are incredibly dangerous, but we never know with kids how they're going to develop.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who supported the state’s life without parole law for juveniles, said crime victims won’t be forgotten during the next round of court hearings.
“Every case has its unique set of facts,” Schuette said. “We’re going to make sure the truth is accurate.”
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