Opinion » Viewpoint

The Prosecution Rests

Why the delay on appointing a new U.S. attorney for Tennessee's Western District?



Some Democrats in Washington are making a big fuss over the firing of United States attorneys during the reign of former President Bush and his attorney general Alberto Gonzales.

They're demanding that Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testify under oath about what they know about the dismissal of nine former federal prosecutors for political reasons.

Very interesting, but we should be paying more attention to hiring U.S. attorneys in 2009 than the firing of them in 2007.

It has been one year since David Kustoff resigned as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee and was replaced by "interim" U.S. attorney Larry Laurenzi. It has been seven months since Barack Obama was elected president and four months since he took office. It has been three-and-a-half months since Eric Holder Jr. was sworn in as attorney general of the United States.

Laurenzi is a fine career prosecutor and an able replacement. It may be that he should have the job permanently. Save the taxpayers a little money. You have to wonder how crucial a job is if it can remain unfilled for nearly a year. But whether it's Laurenzi or someone else, Memphis needs a U.S. attorney without the word "interim" in front of his or her name.

Mayor Willie Herenton and mayoral aide Pete Aviotti have been under investigation more or less continuously for a year — Herenton for several years. It's trial and indictment by rumor and defense by op-ed column. It's unfair to the mayor and unhelpful to people who want to know the facts, and it's crippling city government, which should be focused on the budget, crime, schools, and economic development.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI in Memphis need to put up or shut up. My guess is that they cannot or will not do that until a new U.S. attorney for West Tennessee is named. But we don't know. No public office is more powerful or less transparent than the FBI and federal prosecutors.

Standard procedure after a presidential election and a transfer of power in Washington is for the senior members of Congress in that state from the president's party to recommend someone for the prosecutor's job. That would include Democratic congressmen Steve Cohen and John Tanner.

Herenton, of course, has complicated matters by announcing that he plans to run against Cohen in 2010. That is his right. But the show must go on. Herenton's gambit merely highlights a selection process that is always complicated by politics.

By custom, a lawyer of good reputation and certified Democratic Party credentials will be nominated sooner or later for the job. Kustoff was a political animal before he was chosen as U.S. attorney. He took over in the middle of the Tennessee Waltz trials, but he let assistants try the cases. Since his resignation, he has gotten involved once again in Republican Party politics.

How much do Obama and Holder care about the Memphis appointment? Assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza, who tried the Tennessee Waltz cases, scoffed at suggestions that the Memphis office was under any political influence from President Bush or Attorney General Gonzales. But in 1993, the trial of then-congressman Harold Ford was of great interest to newly elected President Bill Clinton and associate attorney general Webster Hubbell. So much so that presiding judge Jerome Turner publicly denounced the attempted interference with jury selection.

Is it a stretch to think that the first African-American president and the first African-American attorney general might have some unusual interest in a federal criminal investigation of a sitting fifth-term African-American mayor of Memphis? Or is it a stretch to think they regard the West Tennessee appointment as no different from any other?

I think the latter. A Herenton indictment would be a national news story. It's hard to believe that Holder, certainly, and possibly Obama have not been briefed on the case. Or that the appointee will ask and be asked some questions about it.

There's going to be a ruckus no matter what. Let's get on with it.

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