The White House is having trouble finding a replacement for controversial U.S. Attorney Leura Canary in Alabama’s Middle District, having considered and discarded three candidates over the last year, according to Alabama Democrats.
Both Republicans and Democrats have objected to different candidates, and the White House has been unwilling to cross the state’s powerful GOP senators, according to a Democrat who has spoken to administration officials about the matter. The result has been the continued service of Canary, a bête noire of Alabama Democrats for her prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D), while the administration now considers a fourth candidate.
Over the summer, the White House eliminated white-collar defense lawyer Joe Van Heest of Montgomery, even though he’d already been fully vetted, the Alabama Democrats said.
Van Heest met objections from Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs Committee. Shelby had also helped thwart the original candidate for the job, Mobile-based lawyer Michel Nicrosi, the Democrats said. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also opposed Nicrosi.
Then, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Birmingham-based Northern District briefly emerged as a front-runner, only to be shot down by Alabama Democrats who said her past work on politically controversial prosecutions disqualified her.
Last month, Main Justice provided an accounting of U.S. Attorney nominations. The figures — President Barack Obama has nominated 42 U.S. Attorneys, and 31 have been confirmed — painted a picture of a process beset by political interference and a White House counsel’s office in flux. (The latter problem may be solved, with the arrival of White House counsel Bob Bauer, but only time will tell.)
Alabama’s Middle District provides an interesting case study: Republican and Democratic opposition, combined with a hands-off White House, has so gummed up the process, there have been four U.S. Attorney front-runners since the summer – but zero nominations.
Shelby’s objections to Van Heest, as we reported in July, appeared to be related to his efforts to promote the daughter of a political supporter for the job. Shelby pushed Anna Clark Morris for the prosecutor post, Alabama officials and lawyers told Main Justice over the summer. Morris, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Middle District, is the daughter of influential trial lawyer and Shelby supporter Larry Morris. Neither Shelby’s office nor Van Heest returned phone calls seeking comment.
Both Nicrosi and Van Heest enjoyed the support of Rep. Artur Davis, the state’s senior congressional Democrat, and they both reached the interview-at-the-Justice-Department stage of the process before the White House eliminated them. Nicrosi was the first choice of a selection committee formed Davis; Van Heest was the second. Click here and here for a more background on their candidacies.
After Van Heest, according to the Democrat with knowledge of the selection process, several individuals were approached about the job, including two state circuit judges, a former federal magistrate judge, and a former president of the Alabama state bar. All declined to throw in their hats — though it’s not clear why. (An indictment of the current process, perhaps?)
At one point, there was an effort to build some support around Montgomery-based lawyer Ed Parish Jr., the knowledgeable Democrat said. But Davis and others raised objections about Parish’s lack of criminal experience.
In the fall, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamarra Matthews Johnson, 35, of Alabama’s Northern District, emerged as the new front-runner. It’s not clear who recommended her for the post. The knowledgeable Democrat said she applied directly to the White House. Johnson declined to comment.
In any event Johnson, a former clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, wasn’t expected encounter opposition from Sessions and Shelby, the knowledgeable Democrat said.
But she could not overcome her work on corruption cases against Democrats, including the prosecution of Siegelman for alleged bid-rigging. The case, which was overseen by Birmingham-based U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, another villian of the Left, was eventually thrown out. (Siegelman was later indicted and convicted in the Montgomery-based Middle District, on Canary’s turf.)
Democrats have long-maintained the Siegelman cases were politically motivated.
Johnson also worked on the Justice Department’s case against Richard Scrushy, the former chief executive of HealthSouth, who was acquitted in 2005 of masterminding a $2.7 billion accounting fraud. But in 2006, Scrushy was convicted in the Middle District of paying $500,000 to Siegelman in return for a seat on the state hospital regulatory board.
Amid a groundswell of Democratic opposition – Johnson was referred to as a “rabid, right-wing Republican” in one anyonmous quote that gained purchase in the blogosphere, though she and her husband are Democratic donors – Davis approached the White House. The congressman warned that her nomination would generate a backlash, the knowledgeable Democrat said.
The White House, which thus far has been loath to mix it up with Republicans over U.S. Attorney nominations, tread at least as carefully with Democrats, and Johnson’s candidacy dissolved.
The new front-runner, the official said, is George Beck Jr., 68, a white-collar defense lawyer at Capell & Howard and former state prosecutor. Davis recently passed his named to the White House, the official said, but it appears his candidacy will be anything but tidy.
Even if he satisfies the state’s Republican senators, he’ll have to assuage Democrats. Like Johnson, he also was involved in the Siegelman case as a lawyer for government witness Nick Bailey, an ex-aide to the governor who was sentenced to 18 months in prison on bribery-related charges. Bailey, one of the government’s star witnesses, testified in three trials and submitted to more than 40 interviews with federal investigators.
Beck, others noted, also defended Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor of Alabama since Reconstruction, who was convicted of illegaly diverting and spending money raised for his 1987 inauguration.