The moment I heard that the Bush administration had rudely pushed out a handful or so of federal prosecutors, I immediately figured that Phoenix-based U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton had to be among them.
Unfortunately, I was right.
No clairvoyance here. Just an educated guess. During a border-related journalism fellowship I directed last year in Arizona, I had the immense pleasure of dealing directly with Charlton. He accepted an invitation to drive the two hours from Phoenix and meet over dinner with the fellowship’s 10 working reporters who were gathered in Tucson. There aren’t many federal officials who make that sort of strenuous effort just for the chance to get a free plate of rubber chicken and a grilling over dessert by a roomful of nosy and experienced reporters. And this was right at the time when his office was embroiled in a high-profile controversy over the prosecution of a couple of humanitarian-aid workers accused of smuggling border crossers whom they had driven to get medical attention (they were later acquitted).
I wrote about Charlton at the time in these pages. He came off, not just to me but also to the other reporters present, as amiable, frank and thoughtful during our discussions. He openly questioned the sanity of current immigration and drug policy. And he was perfectly willing to admit and explore the doubts he had about his own office’s case against the aid workers.
A few years earlier, Charlton had played an admirable role in the Devil’s Highway case, prosecuting the smugglers who had abandoned 14 migrants to a horrific shake-and-bake death in the Sonoran Desert. And he earned a reputation for being one of those rare public officials who actually had the public interest at heart. If there was a face for Enlightened Law Enforcement — it was Charlton.
The surprise isn’t that the Bushies canned him, but rather that they appointed him in the first place. It was a mind-boggling exercise to try to imagine how this totally rational and sensible official could sit in meetings with the intemperate ideologues who were his bosses and still survive. In the end, he apparently couldn’t.
There’s plenty of speculation as to why Charlton got pushed out: He disagreed on the White House’s draconian immigration policy, he refused to prosecute minor marijuana cases, he refused to ask for blanket use of the death penalty, he insisted on taping any confession taken by FBI agents, he didn’t hold back from prosecuting corrupt and dirty Border Patrol officers. All honorable offenses. All enough in themselves to get him fired.
Charlton, though, wasn’t on the original DOJ purge list. But then, in September of last year, during the run-up to the national midterm elections, Charlton began an initial probe into accusations of influence peddling and hinky land deals by a Republican state legislator. No sooner had that investigation begun than Charlton got his name posted on the Justice Department hit list. “We should now consider pushing out” Charlton, was the e-mail message from D. Kyle Sampson — then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — to White House Counsel Harriet Miers. By the end of this past January, Charlton was out. And like his seven other colleagues from across the nation, he was tarred with the false accusation that his departure had something to do with job performance.
Now we know those rationales are to be filed among the mountain of other mendacities produced by this administration. And as we go to press, the very future of Attorney General Gonzales hangs in the balance — the smart money predicting that he’s about to bed down with the fishes.
No tears will be shed for Gonzales’ departure. But his resignation, in itself, will change little. President Bush will replace him, no doubt, with another blind loyalist, another operative who will believe his role is to be the president’s personal attorney rather than America’s chief law-enforcement officer.
More important is that Congress not only flush out the whole, sordid back-story that led to the Justice Department purge, but that it also get serious about starting to reverse the constitutional damage wrought by Gonzales, not to mention his predecessor, John Ashcroft. The first baby steps in that direction are being taken this week, as both parties have expressed support for repealing an obscure provision in the Patriot Act that allowed the naming of U.S. attorneys without any Senate confirmation.
Restoring that small piece of oversight is a good beginning. But much more crucial and politically volatile work remains. Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, joined by Republican Arlen Specter, have been fashioning legislation to repeal the portion of the Military Commissions Act that purports to eliminate habeas corpus rights for detainees and strip federal courts of jurisdiction to adjudicate detainee claims. It’s one thing for a blowhard senator to huff and puff, demanding that Gonzales get the sack. It’s quite another to stand up and do the hard work of reversing his policies. All that will play out in the days to come.
Meanwhile, Paul Charlton is now in private practice in Phoenix. As painful as his separation from office may have been, the recompense is to no longer be associated with Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department. It’s a case of having all the right enemies.