A freshman Democratic Senator is working to pass a bill on Thursday that will put limitations on communications between the White House and the Justice Department regarding pending law enforcement business. The bill's author intends to prevent the politicization of Justice Department criminal and civil prosecutions.
"We need to restore Americans' confidence that politics has no place in the administration of justice in our country," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, told the Huffington Post in a statement. "Requiring the Department of Justice and the White House to disclose who is authorized to discuss pending investigations and cases will be an important step in that effort. Even Attorney General Gonzales admitted that the greatest threat to the Department's independence came from the White House, so this portal between the White House and the Department bears careful scrutiny."
Whitehouse's bill, which is co-sponsored with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), states that only certain "covered officers" in both the Justice Department and White House may discuss ongoing criminal or civil investigations carried out by the Justice Department. The bill also requires the Attorney General and President to notify the Senate and House Judiciary Committees when new covered officers are designated.
The bill was prompted by the July revelation of the so-called 'Gonzales memo' during a Senate hearing with now outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The memo, signed by Gonzales in May 2006, gave the Office of the Vice President the same power to peer into the workings of the Justice Department's law enforcement activities as the President's top aides.
"What - on earth - business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, and ongoing matters?" the Senator asked Gonzales on July 24.
Gonzales, who appeared unaware of the memo's content in the hearing, acknowledged that granting such authority to staff in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, such as his Chief of Staff and Counsel, was worrisome.
"On its face - I must say - sitting here, I'm troubled by this," Gonzales admitted at the time.
A spokeswoman for Senator Whitehouse could not say how often the authority had been employed by White House staff.
The senator's exchange with Gonzales touched on the fault line of allegations of White House political interference in the Justice Department's law enforcement activities. Democrats in Congress have long expressed their concerns that nine US Attorneys were fired in 2006 and 2007 because they were unwilling to either pursue or hold back certain political corruption prosecutions.
The bill will be brought up in Thursday's business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A spokesperson for Senator Arlen Specter, the Ranking Republican on the committee, had no comment on whether he would support Sen. Whitehouse's legislation.
The Huffington Post sought comment from both the Justice Department and the White House on the legislation, but neither responded at press time.