Stepping on His Dick

Karl Rove is a brilliant (and brutal) political tactician. Whether or not you accept that Bush won the 2000 election, it was Rove who made a mediocre governor with a second-rate policy mind president of the United States. Rove is also a self-taught American-history scholar (he never finished college). He is a self-made multimillionaire, earning every cent he ever made gaming the American political system. And he is a master of the complex public-policy issues that bore and bewilder Bush.

None of these qualities makes Rove a good defendant or prudently self-interested subject of a criminal investigation. In Washington, until he was caught up in Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation of the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name, Rove avoided being put under oath — until his four appearances before the federal grand jury handling the Plame case. Grand-jury proceedings are secret, so little is known about how Rove fared in the questioning that resulted in the indictment of Dick Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby. Yet Rove’s performance under oath in Texas is revealing, and suggests that while testifying before Fitzgerald and the grand jury, Rove might have stepped on his dick (to use a legal term of art from the state of Texas).

In August 1997, Rove responded to a subpoena by attorneys representing five private trial lawyers the state hired to force tobacco companies to pay tobacco-related medical costs incurred by the state. Rove was subpoenaed because while he was working for Governor Bush, he was also receiving a monthly paycheck for consulting work for tobacco giant Philip Morris. The trial attorneys were all Democrats and took on the hugely expensive case on a contingency agreement by which they would be paid only if they prevailed. They suspected Rove was secretly trying to queer the lawsuit, which had been undertaken by a Democratic attorney general.

It was a valid theory. By bringing in more than $17 billion for the state, the five law firms earned more than $3 billion in payments structured over several decades. Rove was Big Tobacco’s guy in Austin — mostly because of his Bush connection. And some of the billions the trial lawyers were paid would undoubtedly be used to rebuild a state Democratic Party that was and remains deader than the political future of Scooter Libby.

Rove was a dreadful deponent, at times arrogant, at times hostile, and ultimately dishonest. With his lawyer at his side, he allowed himself to be caught in a lie that pertained to a critical fact regarding Rove, Bush and the tobacco companies. (In the end, the billions paid by the tobacco companies caused Democratic Attorney General Dan Morales to lose his sometimes slippery grip on reality, as he worked to get a cut of the money, married a topless dancer from Abilene, and was ultimately sent to the Big Rodeo by a federal judge who said he wished “there was an additional sentence for stupidity.”)

In the course of questioning, Rove told the attorney representing the trial lawyers that he had a firm agreement with the governor to recuse himself from anything having to do with tobacco. A “Chinese wall” separated his tobacco consulting from his work for Bush. The lawyers knew the answers to some of the questions before they asked them. They knew that Rove had been involved in polling funded by the tobacco lobby. One of the polls was a piece of political trash, a push poll asking respondents how they would vote if they knew the Democratic attorney general had provided financial support to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — which he never had. The day the results were released, Rove attended a tobacco-lobby meeting and immediately took the poll to Bush chief of staff Joe Allbaugh.

Caught in a lie about keeping Bush and Big Tobacco separate, Rove retreated. Rather than give it to Bush, he delivered the poll to Allbaugh, he said, knowing Allbaugh would throw it away without looking at it. The answer didn’t wash. Rove was not a party to the lawsuit, so he faced little immediate risk. But the trial lawyers had what they wanted. When Bush, acting in his capacity as governor, set out to take their fees away from them, they could stand before federal Judge David Folsom in Texarkana and point to the intellectual author of a lawsuit that would ultimately embarrass Bush.

The tobacco suit was Rove’s second failure under oath. In 1990, Republican Governor Bill Clements appointed Rove to a state university-board of regents. Appearing before the Senate Nominations Committee, Rove again was both unprepared and dishonest. Since 1986, Rove had been providing tips and information to an FBI agent named Greg Rampton, who was conducting serial investigations of the finances of statewide Democratic officeholders. On one occasion Rove even announced in Washington the coming indictments of two lieutenants of Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower in Austin — more than a week before the Department of Justice unsealed the indictments.

Rove had met Rampton under unusual circumstances. In 1986, as a Democratic opponent was closing in on Rove’s candidate, the incumbent governor, Rove held a press conference to announce that a bug had been planted in his office. It was a brilliant tactic, pointing to the Democratic challenger’s desperation. Special Agent Greg Rampton investigated the bugging and no charges were filed. A source close to the Travis County district attorney told me they investigated before the FBI and concluded it was a political stunt. Rove or someone working for him had had his own office bugged. Five years later, stumbling under questioning from a Democratic senator, Rove said he didn’t exactly know Rampton. When pressed, he resorted to a Clintonesque parsing of terms: “Ah, senator, it depends. Would you define ‘know’ for me?” He then qualified his response, saying he wouldn’t recognize Rampton “if he walked in the door.” His dishonest response provided Senate Democrats a sufficient pretext to deny Rove his university board position.

Over the past two years, Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for Chicago, has interviewed almost 50 people, including the president and vice president. He has reams of documents and phone logs subpoenaed from government offices and news outlets. He knows the truthful answer to many questions before he asks them. Rove has faced the grand jury four times, without the aid of legal counsel, as lawyers do not accompany clients into the grand-jury room. Prosecutors in possession of a great deal of information can lay perjury traps that can turn a subject into a target. With four times at bat, it’s likely that Rove committed a few errors. He’s still in the deal, as is evident in a Washington Post story that had Fitzgerald interviewing the lawyer for Time reporter Matthew Cooper a week before indicting Libby. The topic of the interview was Rove.

There’s more. As Republican Party corruption metastasizes, Rove’s personal secretary, Susan Ralston, who patched through the call from Cooper to Rove, has been called before two grand juries in two separate investigations. Both might involve her boss. Besides the Valerie Plame investigation, Ralston was called before a grand jury investigating lobbyist Jack Abramoff, suspected of bilking American Indian clients out of $82 million. Time reports that Abramoff twice had Christian Right politico Ralph Reed ask Rove for specific favors for his clients. Abramoff is a known quantity in the White House. He served on the Bush transition team in 2000 and has raised at least $200,000 for the Bush campaign. Before his lobbying operation went south, he was an occasional guest at the White House. And he recommended his personal secretary, Susan Ralston, to Rove. A source close to one of the Indian tribes stiffed by Abramoff says he told tribal leaders that he sometimes met with Rove — outside the White House so Abramoff’s name wouldn’t appear in visitor logs. That source has been interviewed by the FBI regarding the Abramoff investigation, so it is assumed that information was passed on and will be run by Rove or Ralston.

It’s hard for Bush to pull the plug on Rove. Rove is the last of the three political advisers Bush brought from Texas who remains on the White House staff. Not only is he responsible for Bush’s two victories, he does much of the policy and political thinking for Bush. Disaster relief in New Orleans went as it did in part because of Rove’s kidney stones and legal problems. Bush finds it hard to function without him. Until Rove had to sit out a few presidential trips because of his legal problems, he advised Bush on a daily basis since the first presidential campaign began in 1998. Rove is as correctly described in Wayne Slater and Jim Moore’s book Bush’s Brain. And now there’s quiet talk among White House aides that it’s time to cut losses and send him on his way.

Don’t count on it. If things get really bad, maybe Bush will bring Special Agent Greg Rampton out of retirement to work the case. And maybe this time, Rove will recognize him if he walks in the door.

Lou Dubose is the co-author of Boy Genius, a political biography of Karl Rove; and The Hammer, a Public Affairs book about Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He is currently working on a Random House book on the Bill of Rights.

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