How do you get rid of somebody who has been very successful at his job, and because he is so good at it, he's giving you heartburn?
How about give him a promotion?
WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — The investigation of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Republican lobbyist, took a surprising new turn on Thursday when the Justice Department said the chief prosecutor in the inquiry would step down next week because he had been nominated to a federal judgeship by President Bush.
The prosecutor, Noel L. Hillman, is chief of the department's public integrity division, and the move ends his involvement in an inquiry that has reached into the administration as well as the top ranks of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill....
Colleagues at the Justice Department say Mr. Hillman has been involved in day-to-day management of the Abramoff investigation since it began almost two year ago. The inquiry, which initially focused on accusations that Mr. Abramoff defrauded Indian tribes out of tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees, is being described within the department as the most important federal corruption investigation in a generation.
Now there are two ways to look at the nomination for Hillman, who has, in the course of his investigation, unravelled the complex web of ties between Abramoff, the Bush administration and Congress, and collected enough evidence against Abramoff to induce him to plead guilty three weeks ago to three corruption related charges in exchange for his cooperation with investigators (Mr. Hillman being the chief one) who theaten to expose quite a lot of corruption this coming year.
One way to look at this is that President Bush is so impressed with Hillman's work on the Abramoff case (pretty much all he has worked on for two years) and how much he has uncovered, and how he was able to break down one of the most powerful unelected people in Washington, that the President feels that he has earned the right to a Federal judgeship.
The second possibility is that President Bush is so nervous about the work Hillman is doing, getting closer and closer to both the President and his allies in Congress, that lacking a way to fire him or remove Hillman from the case without creating an even bigger firestorm (remember how thoroughly that backfired on Nixon during the so-called 'Saturday Night Massacre'), he has decided that giving the attack dog a steak is the only way to get him off.
Now, I'd love to suppose that it is the first reason, but to be honest, I believe that like I believe Brownie did a 'heckuva job'. And I can't blame Hillman for accepting the opportunity of a lifetime. Most of us would do the same.
However, what may have motivated the President to pluck a very effective prosecutor off of such an important case is secondary. Hillman has accepted the offer, and will become a judge as soon as he is confirmed by the Senate. So the question is what comes next.
And Democrats are absolutely right, when they point out that the importance of the Abramoff investigation is so high that it is appropriate to call a special prosecutor:
Mr. Hillman's nomination for a judgeship was among the factors cited Thursday by four Democratic lawmakers, two senators and two representatives, in calling on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to name a special prosecutor to oversee the corruption investigation.
The timing of Mr. Hillman's nomination "jaundices this whole process," Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. "They have to appoint a special counsel. I think there will be broad support for one."
Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, called the timing "startling" and said, "You have one of the chief prosecutors removed from a case that has tentacles throughout the Republican leadership of Congress, throughout the various agencies and into the White House."
Of course, Republicans, who have much more to lose, don't want one. Truth is, they would rather that this all go away entirely. But since it won't, they prefer to keep it under the purview of the Justice Department (that way, if someone starts sniffing too close to the bone, they can appoint him as a judge or something.) Recall, however, that whatever they may be saying now, that Republicans had no problem calling for a special prosecutor to investigate a 1986 land deal that the Clintons lost money on. And they kept it going for years, until the final report which had nothing about the land deal but was full of pornographic details about an affair that the President hadn't even had yet when the office of the Whitewater special prosecutor was first created. If that is the standard, then it seems that someone pleading guilty to corruption charges involving members of Congress is a much more serious matter and represents a bigger threat to our democracy.
President Bush has the Constitutional right to nominate who he wants to judicial positions (subject to the advice and consent of the Senate), and I suspect that Noel Hillman's name will sail through the Senate with none of the controversy we have seen around the Alito nomination. However, with his administation itself being among the many targets of the Abramoff probe, it is time for the Attorney General to ask Congress to create the office of a special prosecutor to investigate corruption and influence peddling.