I have to admit there are moments when the screaming fits and scandals of Washington, D.C., seem far removed from life out here on the prairie. This isn't one of those times.
The scandal in the U.S. Department of Justice has now reached into the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City and possibly into the 2006 election in Missouri. What may be Republican efforts to target core constituencies of the Democratic Party may also have reached into the 2006 election in Kansas and into the 2007 Kansas legislative session.
If those of us out here in the great middle weren't concerned before, it's time to pay attention now.
This post is an attempt to put all of this into perspective and to pose the questions that remain unanswered.
Two issues are paramount.
- The quality of federal law enforcement in the Kansas City region
- The fairness of elections in Kansas and Missouri
When I covered northeastern Kansas and the Kansas Legislature for The Wichita Eagle, I quickly realized that although U.S. attorneys are political appointees, their jobs were and are not political. They are charged with enforcing federal law in their regions.
They take on cases involving drugs, civil rights, corruption and a multitude of other issues. Our safety and the health of our democracy depends on the professionalism and fairness of U.S. attorneys.
The first issue before us is this: Was a U.S. Attorney named Todd Graves forced out in Kansas City for no other reason than the fact that he was, well, fair and professional? Was he forced out because he would not bow to the demands of the Bush Administration that he use his office to unfairly target Democratic constituencies for voting fraud charges?
(The KC Star's Steve Kraske reviews Graves approach to his job.)
Graves resigned in March 2006, a few months after his name was put on a White House target list. Graves told The Kansas City Star that he is thankful that he left because the "current environment at the department can only be described as toxic." Graves also told the reporter that he didn't know his name was on what appears to be a hit list.
So perhaps Graves wasn't forced out. Why would he have quit if he didn't know he was on the hit list?
Look, though, at what happened when he left. Within 13 days of his departure, the White House appointed Brad Schlozman, a justice department official who had already filed a voter fraud case against Missouri.
Thirteen days? If the Department of Justice didn't know Graves was leaving, how did it find a replacement at what amounts to warp speed? But then again, Missouri was a battleground state in November. The victory of Claire McCaskill helped secure the Senate for Democrats. At the time Schlozman was sent to Kansas City, the Missouri Senate race was still neck and neck.
What did Schlozman do when he got to Missouri? A week before the election, he prosecuted ACORN workers for allegedly filing false voter registration forms. This is the only federal case filed against ACORN in the nation. ACORN works in urban areas with key Democratic constituencies.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Kansas pushed hard in the 2007 session for a bill requiring voter identification, a measure Democrats think is aimed at thinning out some of their core voters. Even its supporters say the bill is designed to fix a voting fraud problem that apparently doesn't exist in the Sunflower State.
Also just before the November election, the Wichita Eagle reported that Spanish-speaking voters were facing difficulties in registering to vote. The Kansas election system is run by its secretary of state, an office held by a Republican.
What does it all mean? Do all these events go together, or is this a vast coincidence?
Honestly, I don't know.
The Bushie's choice for the Kansas City U.S. attorney office has a record of putting politics before professionalism. The case Schlozman filed against Missouri before coming to the Kansas City office was dismissed by a federal judge last month. The judge said she found no evidence of major voter fraud in the state.
The voting fraud case Schlozman filed just before the election eventually ended up with one ACORN worker pleading guilty in February to falsely registering one Kansas City woman. According to a Feb. 7, 2007, Kansas City Star story ACORN itself informed authorities in October 2006 of irregularities by three of its workers. (I'm not linking to the story because I found it in a library database open only to registered members of the library.)
Schlozman said at the time that the ACORN charges weren't political. ACORN's own involvement in the case seems to indicate that. However, the fact that the entire case ended in one person pleading guilty to doing something wrong one time indicates that the case may have been overblown. But then again, shouldn't even one crime be prosecuted?
I don't have good answers to the questions raised by all of this. However, I do know that antics of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and crew have destroyed the credibility of that department.
Never before have I questioned the integrity of a U.S. attorney. I do now. Never before have I questioned the integrity of elections out here on the prairie. Unfortunately, I do now.