Posts Tagged ‘Harry Reid’
Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys called on Senate leaders to schedule votes on non-controversial judicial nominees, saying the vacancies were making it hard for prosecutors to be effective.

John E. Nordin, the NAAUSA vice president for membership and operations, wrote in a letter last week to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that federal judicial vacancies “are reaching historic highs.” The full Senate has yet to consider 26 nominees the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed for judgeships on U.S. District Courts and U.S. Circuit Circuit Courts of Appeal.

“Our members – career federal prosecutors who daily appear in federal courts across the nation – are concerned by the increasing numbers of vacancies on the federal bench,” Nordin wrote in the Dec. 17 letter. “These vacancies increasingly are contributing to greater caseloads and workload burdens upon the remaining federal judges. Our federal courts cannot function effectively when judicial vacancies restrain the ability to render swift and sure justice.”

The NAAUSA said Senators should vote on nominees who received the backing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel said Tuesday.

During the first two years of the Bush administration, when Democrats in the opposite party controlled Senate, the chamber confirmed 100 judicial appointments. By contrast, the 111th Congress has confirmed 53 circuit and district nominations to date.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee had 38 pending judicial nominees awaiting a Senate floor vote, but nine of those nominees were confirmed on Friday and over the weekend.

As of today there are 26 pending judicial nominations, with the Senate scheduled to vote on two more nominations this afternoon. Many of these nominations were reported as early as last January and from the 26 vacant slots, 15 are considered judicial emergencies by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The executive director of the NAAUSA, Dennis Boyd, said such a letter is unusual for the association to send to Senate leaders.

“These vacancies increasingly are contributing to greater caseloads and workload burdens upon the remaining federal judges. Our federal courts cannot function effectively when judicial vacancies restrain the ability to render swift and sure justice,” said Nordin.

Our
members – career federal prosecutors who daily appear in federal courts across the
nation – are concerned by the increasing numbers of vacancies on the federal
bench. These vacancies increasingly are contributing to greater caseloads and
workload burdens upon the remaining federal judges. Our federal courts cannot
function effectively when judicial vacancies restrain the ability to render swift and
sure justice.
Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

President Barack Obama told reporters today that he is considering making recess appointments for nominees who are being held up by Republicans in the Senate.

“I respect the Senate’s role to advise and consent, but for months, qualified, non- controversial nominees for critical positions in government, often positions related to our national security, have been held up despite having overwhelming support,” Obama said in an unexpected appearance before the White House press corps.

Dawn Johnsen (Indiana University)

He didn’t say which nominees he may put in office without Senate confirmation during Congress’s recess next week for the Presidents Day holiday. Among the nominations that have stalled are Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Mary L. Smith for the Tax Division and Christopher Schroeder for the Office of Legal Policy. Their nominations languished in the Senate for months last year before they were returned to the White House in December and re-nominated last month.

“If the Senate does not act …, I will consider making several recess appointments during the upcoming recess because we can’t afford to let politics stand in the way of a well functioning government,” Obama said.

Obama made his remarks after meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders Tuesday. He said he urged Senate Republicans to remove their holds on “nominees for critical jobs.”

“Surely we can set aside partisanship and do what’s traditionally been done with these nominations,” the president said.

A recess appointment lasts until the end of a current congressional session. Without Senate confirmation, the appointees must vacate their positions when a session ends. Recess appointments are controversial. President George W. Bush made a handful of recess appointments over the objections of Democrats, including John Bolton in 2005 to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations.

A senator’s hold doesn’t make it impossible for the Senate to consider nominees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could file a cloture petition to move a nomination. Cutting off debate on a nomination, however, is a time-consuming process for the Senate and would be difficult for the Democratic majority with the addition of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to the Senate. Brown became the 41st member of the Republican Senate conference last week, ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.

Reid said on the Senate floor last week that the president might have to start considering recess appointments.

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Richard Shelby (Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has withdrawn most of his “holds” on presidential nominees, including President Obama’s picks for key Justice Department posts.

Shelby’s office announced late last night that the senator would drop his “blanket hold” on more than 70 nominees pending on the Senate Executive Calendar. A hold is when a senator — often anonymously — lets it be known he would oppose a unanimous consent request to bring a particular bill or nomination to the Senate floor. Without unanimous consent, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would have to make a debatable motion to bring the matter to the floor, thus raising the possibility of a filibuster. Senate leaders usually do not even begin that process, recognizing it would be very time-consuming.

The DOJ nominees who were caught up in Shelby’s hold were:

  • Mary L. Smith, to be Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division. She was reported out of committee last Thursday.
  • Christopher Schroeder, to be Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy. He also was reported out of committee on Thursday.
  • John Laub, to be director of the National Institute of Justice. He was reported out of committee on Dec. 3.
  • Susan Carbon, to be director of the Office on Violence Against Women. She was reported out of committee on Dec. 3.
  • Richard Hartunian, to be U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.
  • Andre Birotte Jr., to be U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.
  • Ron Machen, to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.

The Alabama senator had held up the more than 70 nominees since Thursday over concerns he has about a tanker contract that could bring 1,500 jobs to Mobile, Ala., and over funds he is requesting to build an FBI counterterrorism center in his state. Northrop Grumman is vying to win the tanker contract, and if successful, would assemble the planes in Mobile.

A spokesman for Shelby said the Republican had “accomplished” his goal by employing the “blanket hold,” according to Politico.

“The purpose of placing numerous holds was to get the White House’s attention on two issues that are critical to our national security – the Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker acquisition and the FBI’s Terrorist Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). With that accomplished, Sen. Shelby has decided to release his holds on all but a few nominees directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued,”  Shelby aide Jonathan Graffeo said in a statement, according to Politico.

Shelby still has holds on the nominations of Terry Yonkers, assistant secretary of the Air Force; Frank Kendall, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics; and Erin Conaton, undersecretary of the Air Force, Politico said.

Democrats and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had sharply criticized Shelby for the rare move to hold up all of Obama’s nominees who were waiting for votes in the full Senate. Last week, Gibbs said there likely wouldn’t be a “greater example of silliness throughout the entire year of 2010.”

Monday, February 8th, 2010

President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department Tax Division received her first endorsement for the post in 2010 from an American Indian organization.

Mary L. Smith (Schoeman, Updike & Kaufman)

The All Indian Pueblo Council, a group representing 20 Pueblo Indian Nations in the Southwest, announced its support for Tax Division nominee Mary L. Smith, a member of the Cherokee Nation, in a letter to Senate leaders last week. This is the second time the Smith nomination has been before the Senate. She was first nominated early last year, but the full Senate never took up her confirmation.

“Ms. Smith is an accomplished litigator who has the skills to succeed as the head of the Tax Division,” All Indian Pueblo Council chairman Joe A. Garcia wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.)

The endorsement letter from the Pueblo council is the first that the Judiciary Committee has received since Smith was renominated last month.

Her nomination languished in the Senate for several months last year before it was returned to the White House on Dec. 24. Obama re-nominated her last month and she was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a party-line vote.

Republican senators have complained that Smith has virtually no tax law experience. Democrats have touted her past litigation work as an in-house counsel at Tyco International and as a DOJ trial attorney. We reported on Saturday that Smith has been appointed to the DOJ Civil Division pending the outcome of her nomination to lead the Tax Division.

The Senate Judiciary Committee received seven letters in support of Smith from American Indian organizations in 2009. If confirmed, Smith would be the first American Indian to serve as an Assistant Attorney General. Read our previous report on the support she has received from American Indians leaders here.

“In addition to her impressive legal credentials, Ms. Smith is also a dedicated member of the Native American community,” Garcia wrote in his letter. “Over her career, she has worked tirelessly to improve the visibility and access of Native Americans in the legal profession and to advance Native American civil rights.”

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Richard Shelby (Getty Images)

Seven Justice Department nominees that have been reported out the Senate Judiciary Committee might not receive votes on the Senate floor anytime soon thanks to Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Last night Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that Shelby had placed a “blanket hold” on all nominations pending on the Senate Executive Calendar, including two Assistant Attorneys General nominees, two would-be directors of DOJ offices and three prospective U.S. Attorneys.

Those nominees are:

  • Mary L. Smith, Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division. She was reported out of committee yesterday.
  • Christopher Schroeder, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy. He also was reported out of committee yesterday.
  • John Laub, Director of the National Institute of Justice. He was reported out of committee on Dec. 3.
  • Susan Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women. She was reported out of committee on Dec. 3.
  • Richard Hartunian, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.
  • Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.
  • Ron Machen, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was reported out of committee on Jan. 28.

But the Republican’s beef isn’t with the nominees.

The Alabama senator is holding up the nominees over concerns he has about a tanker contract that could bring 1,500 jobs to Mobile, Ala., and over funds he is requesting to build an FBI counterterrorism center in his state, according to The Caucus blog on The New York Times Web site. Northrop Grumman is vying to win the tanker contract, and if successful, would assemble the plans in Mobile.

“Senator Shelby has placed holds on several pending nominees due to unaddressed national security concerns,” Shelby spokesperson Jonathan Graffeo said in a statement, according to The Caucus. “Among his concerns is that nearly 10 years after the U.S. Air Force announced plans to replace the aging tanker fleet, we still do not have a transparent and fair acquisition process to move forward. The Department of Defense must recognize that the draft Request for Proposal needs to be significantly and substantively changed.”

He added: “Senator Shelby is also deeply concerned that the administration will not release the funds already appropriated to the FBI to build the Terrorist Explosives Devices Analytical Center. This decision impedes the U.S. military, the intelligence community, and federal law enforcement personnel in their missions to exploit and analyze intelligence information critical to fighting terrorism and ensuring American security worldwide.”

Shelby would be willing to speak with the Obama administration about his concerns at any time, according to the spokesman.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs condemned Shelby for the rare decision to hold up all of Obama’s nominees who are waiting for votes in the full Senate.

“I guess if you needed one example of what’s wrong with this town, it might be that one senator can hold up 70 qualified individuals to make government work better because he didn’t get his earmarks,” Gibbs told reporters today, according to the blog. “If that’s not the poster child for how this town needs to change the way it works, I fear there won’t be a greater example of silliness throughout the entire year of 2010.”

The Democratic National Committee also posted a video on YouTube yesterday that alleges Shelby’s holds are threatening national security.

The senator’s holds don’t make it impossible for the Senate to consider nominees. Under normal circumstances, Senate leaders honor an individual senator’s hold. But if Majority Leader Reid wants to bring a nomination to the Senate floor, he could file a cloture petition. Cutting off debate on a nomination is a time-consuming process for the Senate and would be difficult for the Democratic majority with the addition of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to the Senate. Brown became the 41st member of the Republican Senate caucus yesterday, ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.

Reid said on the Senate floor yesterday that the president might have to start considering recess appointments, which wouldn’t require confirmation.

“The president will look at all his options,” Gibbs said, according to The Caucus.

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Editor’s note: The following guest commentary was originally posted on HuffingtonPost.com. Main Justice has received permission from the authors to republish it here.

Is Barack Obama now ready to fight partisan confirmation obstruction against his nominees? When Ben Bernanke’s reappointment was jeopardized, the president fully engaged the fight. Obama worked the phones himself to help Senate leadership line up 60 cloture votes. But what about the additional 300 critical federal executive, regulatory and judicial positions that remain empty?

At his question session during the Senate Democrat retreat, Obama was adamant that if “government is going to work for the American people,” Republican confirmation obstruction “has to end.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently detailed national security dangers resulting from Republican obstruction of defense, intelligence and homeland security appointments. And, Sen. Tom Harkin is prioritizing labor-related confirmation fights. Of equal concern should be the growing number of Department of Justice vacancies, especially in those offices charged with establishing legal policy and vetting scores of other federal nominees, including judges.

Deputy Attorney General David Ogden’s resignation effective early this month leaves the Justice Department without a permanent number two executive official. And the three recently renominated Assistant A.G.s (Dawn Johnsen, Christopher Schroeder, and Mary Smith) will rejoin the long queue of other Obama nominees waiting for a Senate floor vote. It is past time for the Senate majority and the Administration to fight for Justice.

Soliciting Bipartisan Advice, Receiving Partisan Contempt

A year ago seemed like such a hopeful time. Barack Obama entered the White House sincerely wanting to end the partisan confirmation wars. Obama actively solicited bipartisan senatorial advice and, at first, received well-deserved praise for his genuinely diverse, exceptionally qualified, and experienced nominees.

But by late spring, “partisan payback” was revealed as the Senate minority’s watchword from January 20, 2009. As presidential poll numbers declined, Republican obstruction increased. Extreme slow walking was Senate summer sport and the abuse of individual Senate holds (mini-filibusters), the regular order of business.

In fall 2009, partisan procedural delay tactics had proven effective; hundreds of executive and regulatory vacancies still existed and Obama had benched only a dozen judges. On December 24, 2009, Republicans claimed yet another tactical victory by forcing several key nominees back to the White House.

Republican leaders refused to allow the traditional courtesy permitting pending nominations to carry over to the second Senate session. For the Obama nominees, whose lives were on hold for up to a year awaiting confirmation, it was an especially insulting lump of Republican coal in their stockings.

Among the rudely returned were three DOJ Assistant A.G. nominees (Dawn Johnsen for the Office of Legal Counsel, Christopher Schroeder for the Office of Legal Policy, and Mary Smith for the Tax Division). Also rejected was Craig Becker, Obama’s nominee to Chair the quorum-challenged National Labor Relations Board.

Commentators from the left and right prematurely blogged: “Senate Returns Nominees: White House Rolls Over.” Wrong!

Obama Fights Back but Sessions Targets Dawn Johnsen

First-year confirmation lessons may have been learned. President Obama stood by his women and men — at both Justice and the NLRB. The nominations were sent back to the Senate with White House expectations that the respective Senate committees (Judiciary and Labor) would quickly reapprove the renominations so they could proceed to a floor vote.

Obama’s bold act spurred Sen. Arlen Specter to finally commit to Dawn Johnsen for the OLC. Indiana Republican Richard Luger also reaffirmed his pledge to support the Indiana University law professor. For a few days it appeared Johnsen finally had the 60 cloture votes to unblock her year-old nomination. This whip count did not include Sen. Ben Nelson, the lone Democrat yet undecided on Johnsen.

But Obama’s assertive renomination resulted in Johnsen being targeted for more obstruction. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a ranking Judiciary Committee member, demanded a second round of hearings for Johnsen and other renominated DOJ officials. Republicans also invoked committee rules to game out an additional week’s delay. The three renominated DOJ officials join other nominees, including several judicial nominees, on the Thursday, February 4th agenda of the Judiciary Committee’s latest executive schedule.

Meanwhile, Scott Brown’s election confused the cloture whip count. Regardless of when Senator-elect Brown takes Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, Johnsen and all re-nominated DOJ officials should be quickly reapproved by the Judiciary Committee. Also, Chair Patrick Leahy should take the nominations to the Senate floor as soon as possible.

The 60 votes needed for cloture can be found. On February 1, Sen. Tom Harkin mustered exactly the 60 votes needed for cloture when he broke the GOP filibuster of Obama’s nominee for Labor Department Solicitor.

As the Administration did for Bernanke, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the entire White House political operation must lobby for the 60 cloture votes for Justice and NLRB officials. Particular attention should be focused on Dawn Johnsen’s appointment.

Johnsen: A Superb OLC Fit

Democrats and Republicans know the importance of the Office of Legal Counsel to national justice and the rule of law (if only by the damage it inflicted during the Bush years).

The OLC is the in-house lawyer for the Attorney General and the Justice Department. When an official needs high-level constitutional advice, the OLC can be consulted. An OLC opinion carries great persuasive authority but it also effectively insulates federal officials relying on the advice, from liability. When government factions disagree, the OLC is an important arbiter.

Doug Kmiec, OLC head for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, describes the OLC as the Justice Department’s “conscience.” Kmiec, who endured harsh party and church criticism for his 2008 support of Barack Obama, is well aware of the cost of conscientious conviction. Prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Malta, Doug Kmiec joined other legal stars of both parties in praising Dawn Johnsen.

He judged Johnsen’s “spunk and independence of mind” as “just the right tonic for a once proud, but recently tarnished, office.” Kmiec referenced her constitutional scholarship and past public service: “[W]e would be hard-pressed to identify any other comparable appointee for a Justice post who would be as well suited.” (Authors’ note: Doug Kmiec was our Dean at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law from 2001-2003.)

Most importantly, the OLC has a proud tradition of offering independent and tempered advice to the President and the White House. In Dawn Johnsen’s words, “saying no” to the president is “the OLC’s core job description.”

Walter Dellinger, former OLC head, worked with Johnsen and went on to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, heralds Johnsen’s “keen intellect and extraordinarily good judgment.” Dellinger, a reported Obama Supreme Court short- lister, recommends Johnsen because of her “deep dedication to the rule of law.”

By any measure, Johnsen is a superb choice for the job. She served in the OLC for five Clinton years; indeed, Johnsen was acting head of the OLC from 1997-1998. For over the past dozen years, she has been a leading scholar on Justice Department issues. Prof. Johnsen is certainly patient. She patiently waited a year for Senate confirmation for her to fulfill exactly the same role she did for over a year in the Clinton Justice Department.

Speaking Truth to Power, Too Often

Dawn Johnsen is a distinguished academic and advocate, championing privacy, reproductive choice, the rule of law, separation of powers, and DOJ integrity. So why have Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn, blocked her appointment for over a year? Perhaps the scholar dared to speak truth to power once too often.

In her 2008, Slate commentary, Johnsen dissected the flawed reasoning of the infamous torture memos and other legal opinions written by then OLC attorney John Yoo. She dared connect the bloody dots from Yoo’s poison pen directly to George W. Bush’s oval office: “President Bush asked for this kind of distorted legal advice. Remember, from day one, the President sent his lawyers the express message that they were NOT to interpret the law impartially and straight up.”

Time to Get Serious

Sen. John Cornyn represents the obstructionist wing of the Republican Party well in defaming Johnsen (using perhaps unintentionally sexist language) by claiming she lacks the “requisite seriousness” for the OLC job. Truth be told, Cornyn’s real issue with Johnsen may be that the woman is just too serious a scholar and too smart a lawyer.

Were it not for his Senate power to individually block a nominee, it would be hard to take Cornyn’s criticism seriously. Consider his recent Senate campaign ad featuring “Big John, Big Bad John” sporting an oversized cowboy hat, riding on a too pretty horse. The reelection ad’s Zane Grey Theatre voice-over describes Senator “Big Johnnie” being thanked by a grateful populace for “doing the Lord’s work for Texas,” in an undisclosed location: “For that place out yonder needs more men like you, Who shoot straight, And talk straight, And enjoy a good brew. ”

Perhaps most threatening to the junior senator from Texas, Johnsen has been too consistent in her principles. If Senate memory serves, it was long-time “up-or-down confirmation vote” advocate John Cornyn who stated: “What the American people want and expect is that we…will not degenerate into partisan finger-pointing or name-calling, nor obstruction.” Sen. Cornyn also complained in a 2005 letter to the New York Times: “Senate practice and even the Constitution contemplate deference to the president and a presumption in favor of confirmation.”

Are there at least two or three Republican senators who will join Democrats in a series of confirmation cloture votes for Justice’s sake? Are none in the minority embarrassed by the blatant GOP hypocrisy in blocking Obama nominations, when such procedural tactics were so uniformly (even elegantly) criticized by the Republicans during the George W. Bush years?

Dawn Johnsen’s appointment is a litmus test for the Senate confirmation process and for the recharged Obama political operation. If she does not receive a full Senate vote, Democrats must implement the Constitutional Option to return to the Framer’s design of a simple majority confirmation vote.

And, independently, as I’ve argued before for presidents of both parties, President Obama should fully utilize the alternative recess appointment process to fully staff our national government. If Obama finds the will, Clause 3 of Article II, Section 2 will provide the constitutional way. All recess commissions signed over the President’s Day Senate break would last until “the End of their next Session” — late 2011.

One appointment way or the other, the government must be fully staffed.

Victor Williams is an attorney in Washington D.C. and clinical assistant professor at Catholic University of America School of Law; Nicola Sanchez is an attorney with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The views expressed are the authors’ alone and do not reflect those of CUA, the NRC or the federal government.

Monday, January 11th, 2010

Sen. Harry Reid and Ron Weich (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s racial remarks about President Barack Obama “unfortunate.” But said he didn’t think Reid had “a prejudiced bone in his body.”

Holder, the nation’s first black Attorney General, told The Associated Press that Reid is “a good man who has done an awful lot in his leadership position to advance the rights of people of color in this country, and he’s a good guy who I admire a great deal.”

The Nevada Democrat recently apologized to Obama and black politicians after a new book reported that during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Reid said his prospects were good because  he was a “light skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Holder said the remark was unfortunate “in the sense that it’s created this controversy and raised questions about a man I don’t have any doubts about myself.”

Holder said the matter should be closed, since Obama accepted Reid’s apology. But Senate Republicans have called for Reid’s resignation. The Democratic leader is one of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election this year, with polls show him trailing possible rivals amid grassroots anger over health care reform.

Click here for the full story from The AP.

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Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

The Senate today approved an amendment to the health care overhaul bill that includes provisions to fight fraud.

Patrick Leahy (Getty Images)

Patrick Leahy (Getty Images)

The Senate voted 60-39 on a manager’s amendment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would incorporate elements of the Health Care Fraud Enforcement Act into the health care bill. Sen Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a Judiciary Committee member, introduced the fraud legislation as a stand-alone bill in October.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the fraud bill, said in a floor statement yesterday that health care scammers have driven up the cost of medical care. The Judiciary Committee chairman said the manager’s amendment gives prosecutors the resources needed to effectively combat health care fraud.

“These changes will strengthen our ability to crack down on fraud and will ultimately result in significant savings that will make health care more efficient and more affordable,” Leahy said.

Here are some of the key provisions:

– Increased penalties in federal sentencing guidelines.  “Despite the enormous losses in many health care fraud cases, offenders often receive shorter sentences than other white collar criminals,” Leahy said. He added: “By increasing the federal sentencing guidelines for health care fraud offenses, we send a clear message that those who steal from the nation’s health care system will face swift prosecution and substantial punishment.”

– Anti-kickback statute changes. “The manager’s amendment also includes our provision amending the anti-kickback statute to ensure that all claims resulting from illegal kickbacks are considered false claims for the purpose of civil action under the False Claims Act, even when the claims are not submitted directly by the wrongdoers themselves,” Leahy said. “All too often, health care providers secure business by paying illegal kickbacks, which needlessly increases health care risks and costs. This change will help ensure that the government is able to recoup from wrongdoers the losses resulting from these kickbacks.”

– Limited Justice Department subpoena powers for civil rights probes int0 certain medical institutions. “This provision allows the government to more effectively investigate conditions in publicly operated institutions, such as nursing homes, mental health institutions, and residential schools for children with disabilities, where there have been allegations of civil rights violations,” Leahy said.

We reported in October that Assistant Attorney General Tony West urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve health care fraud legislation.

In May, the Justice and Health and Human Services departments launched the Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team to fight Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

Monday, December 21st, 2009

An effort to repeal the antitrust exemption for health insurers took a step back this weekend, when Democratic leaders left it out of a package of changes to the health system overhaul bill the Senate is voting on this week.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) three weeks ago offered language to repeal the exemption as an amendment to the Senate’s health care legislation. The proposed repeal would subject health and medical malpractice insurers to federal laws that forbid firms from fixing prices, rigging bids, or dividing up markets with competitors.

In a statement on Saturday, Leahy said he was “disappointed” the amendment would not be a part of the Senate’s debate.

Similar language, which represents a partial repeal of the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act, is included in the House version of the legislation. Leahy said he will continue to push for the repeal as the the Senate and the House work to reconcile their bills.

The amendment, which had the support of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), was a casualty of Reid’s well-chronicled struggle for the 60th vote in favor of the bill from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)

Nelson, a former insurance executive, had earlier expressed reservations about the repeal. Insurers had also lobbied to keep the provision out. Nelson also has been at the heart of tense negotiations over other provisions of the bill, including whether it would include a government-run health care plan option and restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortions.

Liberals have called attention to the repeal’s notable absence in the latest Senate package, and backers of the repeal have urged House Democrats to fight to keep the repeal in the final bill.

But congressional Democrats have little room to deviate from the Senate version of the legislation. “It is very clear that the bill — the final bill — to pass in the United States Senate is going to have to be very close to the bill that has been negotiated here,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on “Fox News Sunday.” “Otherwise, you will not get 60 votes in the United States Senate.”

Whether the House repeal language will survive in a House-Senate conference negotiation over the final version of the bill is largely dependent on what Nelson is willing to give up. In an interview with CNN, Nelson laid out several provisions in the House bill that are deal-breakers for him, but he did not single out the antitrust exemption as one such deal-breaker.

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
Ron Weich, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Laurie Robinson at an installation ceremony Friday afternoon (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Ron Weich, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Laurie Robinson at an installation ceremony Friday afternoon (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Two Assistant Attorneys General whose friendship goes back over 20 years were formally installed to their respective positions in a joint ceremony Friday afternoon in the Great Hall of the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.

Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs Laurie Robinson served in the same role during the Clinton administration.

Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ron Weich came to the Justice Department after working on Capitol Hill and leading the team that steered Attorney General Eric Holder through the confirmation process earlier this year.

Robinson oversees the research and development arm of the Justice Department, including assisting law enforcement agencies through DOJ grants.

Weich heads the Office of Legislative Affairs, which serves as the liaison between DOJ and the legislative branch.

Holder, along with Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, took part in the ceremony and praised Robinson and Weich.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with his former staffer, Ron Weich. (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Main Justice)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with his former staffer, Ron Weich. (Photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Main Justice)

“Laurie and Ron are not only valued colleagues, they are leaders in the department and throughout this administration,” said Holder. “Their credentials are impeccable; their qualifications are self-evident; and their professional reputations for integrity are well-deserved.”

Holder said Weich is his right arm when he goes to Capitol Hill. The Attorney General and said the two have worked well together ever since Holder got Weich to admit that Holder’s high school, which was a rival of Weich’s high school in New York City, was better than his. (Holder attended Stuyvesant High School; Weich went to the Bronx High School of Science, according to the BLT.)

He said he had a tough time convincing Robinson to return to the Justice Department, as she was happy with her position directing the Master’s Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Criminology, and “her relative freedom from her BlackBerry.” Eventually Holder, Ogden and Perrelli convinced Robinson to return to the Department.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Weich’s former boss, were also in attendance. Reid came in midway through the ceremony, having been held up on the Hill with the health care debate. (Weich had also worked for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and, for 10 months in 1989, then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched parties earlier this year.)

Sen. Harry Reid and Ron Weich (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Sen. Harry Reid and Ron Weich (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Sessions, a frequent critic of Holder, praised both Robinson and Weich, both of whom he has worked with before. Weich has a reputation for forthrightness and hard work, said Sessions.

“Since I have [Weich] captive here, I believe complicit in your duties will be the responsibility to work in a bi-partisan and cooperative basis,” said Sessions. “I know you will do that since you’ve worked on both sides of the aisle.” He also pointed to Weich’s role as the “gatekeeper” between the Justice Department and the legislative branch.

“This county would not be a better place with politicians making legal decisions,” said Sessions, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama for 12 years. “Trust me.”

When Robinson came up for confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions praised her previous work at the Department of Justice.

Laurie Robinson (photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Main Justice)

Laurie Robinson (photo by Ryan J. Reilly/Main Justice)

“I hate to repeat it in front of the Attorney General, but I said at the time that she may have been the finest appointment that President Clinton made in his time in office,” said Sessions. Holder, who had also been appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Attorney in D.C. and then as Deputy Attorney General, smiled and threw up his hands.

Sessions said Robinson, who controls programs that account for $2 billion in the DOJ funding bill for 2010 that is currently being considered by the Senate, has “a vast empire to guard.”