Was a DOJ probe of an allegedly corrupt Congressman compromised? New story in the Hill.

Just out. Long piece I wrote, in this morning’s Hill:In the fall of 2006, one day after the Justice Department granted permission to a U.S. attorney to place a wiretap on a Republican congressman suspected of corruption, existence of the investigation was leaked to the press — not only compromising the sensitive criminal probe but tipping the lawmaker off to the wiretap.

Career federal law enforcement officials who worked directly on a probe of former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) said they believe that word of the investigation was leaked by senior Bush administration political appointees in the Justice Department in an improper and perhaps illegal effort to affect the outcome of an election.

At the time of the leak, Renzi was locked in a razor-thin bid for reelection and unconfirmed reports of a criminal probe could have become politically damaging. The leaked stories — appearing 10 days before the election — falsely suggested that the investigation of Renzi was in its initial stages and unlikely to lead to criminal charges.

In fact, the investigation had been ongoing for some time and had already amassed enough evidence of alleged criminal misconduct to obtain approval from the highest levels of the Justice Department, including then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to seek an application from a federal judge to wiretap Renzi. In February 2008, a federal grand jury indicted Renzi on 36 felony counts of money laundering, extortion, insurance fraud and various other alleged crimes.

But the disinformation leaked to media outlets in October 2006 had the desired effect: Renzi won reelection by the narrowest of margins.

In defending the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys and countering other allegations of the politicization of the Justice Department, Gonzales and other former senior Bush White House officials have emphatically claimed that no political corruption investigations were ever compromised in any way.

This previously unreported episode, however, directly contradicts that claim and constitutes the first evidence that a political-corruption investigation was stymied for political reasons during the Bush administration.

As part of an apparent damage-control effort to assist Renzi’s reelection bid, information was leaked on the same day to three major news organizations: The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press. The articles reported that although there was an ongoing probe of Renzi, it was only in an early stage, no evidence of serious wrongdoing had been uncovered, and it might end up being much ado about nothing.

Yet Gonzales had already approved a request by the then-U.S. attorney leading the investigation, Paul Charlton, to seek an application from a federal judge to wiretap Renzi’s telephone.

Charlton said that while he could not discuss the particulars of the Renzi case because the congressman is awaiting trial, he could comment generally: “Any time you have a wiretap up and the subject or the target becomes aware that there is an investigation, the value of the information you glean from that wiretap will almost certainly be greatly diminished.”

Other sources and court papers filed by Renzi’s attorneys indicate that very little information was obtained as a result of the wiretaps being compromised by the leak. A federal law enforcement official directly involved in the Renzi probe said, “Who is going to talk openly on their telephone if they have read in that morning’s New York Times that they are the subject of a federal criminal investigation?”

The same official said the information gleaned from wiretaps on the telephones of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) underscores the value of wiretaps in federal corruption investigations and why the compromising of wiretaps in the Renzi probe was such a serious offense.

“What if someone had tipped Blagojevich to the wiretaps? We might not have the evidence to indict him or for the legislators to impeach him. We very likely would have never found that he was attempting to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. The crime could have likely gone down — the selling of [President] Obama’s Senate seat — without anyone the wiser.”

Blagojevich has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

Several federal law enforcement officials said in interviews that they believe the Renzi leaks might have constituted a violation of the federal obstruction of justice statute. Now that a new attorney general, Eric Holder, leads the Justice Department, the officials said they hope there would be a formal investigation of the matter.

Solomon Wisenberg, a former federal prosecutor and deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater and Clinton-Lewinsky matter, echoed those sentiments: “If someone knew that there was a wiretap going on and they leaked this information to the press — that is a potential obstruction of justice and that should be thoroughly investigated.”

Wisenberg said that even if the leaker’s motivation were to help Renzi or the Republican Party politically, rather than simply tipping Renzi off as to what investigators were up to, that would make the offense no less egregious. “If someone leaked this to tip off the target of an investigation that there was a wiretap up, that is a crime. If someone leaked the information with the intent to manipulate voters before an election, I don’t think that is any less worse. In some ways, that is worse.”

Charlton, again emphasizing that he could not speak to the specifics of the Renzi probe, said, “Any career federal law enforcement person knows that if you leak the existence of an investigation right as you have a wiretap go up, you are going to do great harm to what you are doing.”

So far, there has been no formal investigation of the leaks related to the Renzi probe. However, the episode did figure in a broader investigation launched by the Justice Department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) into the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys. The two internal Justice Department watchdog agencies examined allegations that Charlton had been dismissed because of his aggressive pursuit of Renzi. The investigation concluded that Charlton had been fired for other reasons.

But in the process of examining the circumstances whereby Charlton and the other former federal prosecutors were dismissed, the agencies addressed the issue of the Renzi wiretap leaks in some detail in a report they made public about the firings. The report did not say who the investigators believed was responsible for leaks to the media. Justice Department officials say that uncovering the identity or identities of the leaker or leakers as well as their motivations was not a mandate of their probe.

Sources close to the investigation say that investigators working for the inspector general and OPR — mirroring the beliefs of prosecutors and FBI agents who worked the case — concluded that it was most likely that political appointees leaked the existence of the Renzi probe and had a political motivation in doing so. A spokesman for Justice’s inspector general declined to comment, and OPR similarly did not respond to inquiries for this article.

At the time the Times, Post and AP stories appeared, Election Day for the 2006 congressional midterms was only 10 days away, and Renzi was in a highly competitive race. A prominent political blog in Arizona had falsely reported that an indictment of Renzi had already been brought but was being held until after the election. A member of Renzi’s staff called Charlton’s office asking whether there was indeed an ongoing investigation of the congressman.

Then, on Oct. 20, 2006, a reporter for the AP called the Justice Department’s then-deputy director for public affairs, Brian Roehrkasse, and asked whether Renzi was under investigation, according to information disclosed in the inspector general and OPR’s report about the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration.

The inspector general’s report said that shortly after the telephone call from the AP reporter, Alice Fisher, then the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, directed that her then-chief of staff brief Roehrkasse about the investigation, although the report leaves unclear whether this occurred.

The inquiry from The Associated Press reporter was then discussed by other senior Justice Department officials. Only days later, the inaccurate stories in the Times, Post and AP appeared, which proved helpful in bolstering Renzi’s reelection bid.

“This had to be done by a person with some expertise and long expertise with dealing with the press,” a senior federal law enforcement official involved in the Renzi probe said. “You have the same story given out the same day saying the very same thing, and it is not even true.”

Moreover, a public-relations maxim of the Bush White House and its press officers was to shorten the lifespan of any bad press to make sure that it got out as widely as possible to as many major news organizations on the same day. For example, in February of 2006, after learning that The New York Times was going to run a story about an administration program to covertly obtain bank records to track down potential terrorists, the White House briefed reporters from the competing Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times so that they would all be able to publish the story that same night.

The case study of what occurred in that instance became the playbook for how public-relations specialists for the administration handled minimizing the impact of bad news and putting their own spin on it: Get everything out everywhere at once, get it out to authoritative news sources, and get your version out first.

In the case of the Renzi leak, pre-emptively leaking to three of the nation’s most authoritative news organizations would limit whatever damage the disclosure of the investigation would do to Renzi politically to only a day or so. And the false assertions that the investigations were in an early stage and Renzi might not have done anything wrong at all were even more crucial in securing Renzi’s reelection.

Meanwhile, career federal law enforcement officials were unlikely to set the record straight in any case, because they didn’t want to do anything that might further compromise their investigation.

Especially damaging was the fact that the stories disclosing the existence of the investigation came only one day after Charlton had obtained formal permission from Justice to seek the application for a wiretap of the congressman.

The lede to the Post story reported that the probe was only in a “preliminary stage.” (The Post story also sympathetically quoted Renzi’s attorney, Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general, as saying: “When I was attorney general, we dealt with this all the time in the last 30 days before an election, when candidates came to us with an accusation. We had to look at it, but it was designed to use politically.”)

The AP similarly quoted its source saying that the Renzi probe was “in the very early stages,” citing that source as a “law enforcement official in Washington” — seeming to indicate that he or she was not one of the career federal prosecutors or FBI agents who were working on the case in Arizona.

Three weeks after the news stories about the Renzi probe appeared — and also not long after the congressional elections — Charlton received a telephone call from a senior Justice Department official directing him to resign.

After Charlton’s firing, there was speculation in the media that it may have been due to his pursuit of Renzi. (Charlton himself never publicly suggested that that was the case.) Yet the report into the firings of the U.S. attorneys concluded there was “no evidence” of that.

Charlton was targeted, the report said, because he clashed with Gonzales over a death penalty case. Charlton wanted the Justice Department to foot the bill for recovering a murder victim from a landfill to make absolutely sure the forensic evidence supported the conviction. Gonzales refused. “I didn’t want to be left to wonder a year later, or 10 years later, or 20 years later whether a life might have been taken unjustly just to appease some political paradigm,” Charlton said.

Gonzales did not comment for this article.

The federal grand jury indictment alleged that Renzi embezzled more than $400,000 from an insurance company he owned so that he could finance his first campaign for Congress.

Later, while a sitting member of Congress, the indictment said, Renzi allegedly engaged in the extortion of a mine owner who wanted federal legislation enacted to benefit his company. After the land deal was completed, more than $733,000 of the proceeds were then funneled to Renzi, the indictment charged.

Renzi has denied any wrongdoing.

The congressman, who did not seek reelection in 2008, is awaiting trial, which will begin in September.

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