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.
“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.)
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.
“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.”
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In a filing Sunday, the government said Robert Coughlin II, the only Justice Department official to face charges in the Abramoff probe, would not be called as a witness at trial. Coughlin is a former lawyer in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison and was deputy chief of staff in the Criminal Division under then-AAG Alice Fisher.
He was also Ring’s prized contact in Main Justice, helping the lobbyist with the Choctaw matter, among others, in return for free concert tickets, luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings. Coughlin pleaded guilty to a conflict of interest charge.
But Coughlin told prosecutors during a mock cross-examination last week that he was unfairly targeted for prosecution and that “the things of value Mr. Ring gave him did not influence his official actions,” according to a government letter to Ring’s lawyers.
In their Sunday filing, prosecutors said Coughlin’s absence would strip “quite a bit” of substance from their case, adding that it amounted to a “windfall” for Ring. But the government still intends to use Coughlin’s out-of-court statements at trial. Ring’s lawyers have asked Huvelle to strike them.
The Sunday filing also appears to clear up a witness problem related Ann Copland, a former staffer for Mississippi Sen.Thad Cochran (R), who pleaded guilty in March to conspiring to commit honest services wire fraud. She told investigators back in January she “could not bring herself to admit that the things of value she received [from Ring] influenced her, even in part, in her performance of official actions,” according to a filing last week by Ring’s lawyers.
The government disclosed Copland’s statement to Ring’s lawyers last Wednesday. Ring has asked Huvelle to cordon off Copland’s out-of-court statements, arguing that her January interview shows she was never part of the Abramoff cabal.
But in a second meeting the with prosecutors and agents in February, this one at her request, Copland apologized for ”not being entirely forthcoming” and admitted tickets she received from Ring influenced her to advance his client’s interests, prosecutors said.
“Since then Copland has consistently told the truth: that she conspired with Ring and others to commit honest-services wire fraud,” the filing said.
There’s been a lot of turbulence this week in the government’s case against Kevin Ring, the former associate of imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff who’s accused of corrupting public officials.
On the cusp of trial, it appears both sides are having witness problems. David Ayres, who was chief of staff to Attorney General John Ashcroft, plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if the defense calls him to testify, Ring’s lawyers said in this Sept. 2 court filing. Jury selection begins Tuesday.
On the government side, potential witness Ann Copland, a former staffer for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran (R), told investigators back in January she “could not bring herself to admit that the things of value she received [from Ring] influenced her, even in part, in her performance of official actions,” according to a Sept. 3 Ring filing, citing newly disclosed information from the government. Ring’s lawyers said the government disclosed Copland’s statement to them on Wednesday.
Copland’s statement is a bit of a surprise, considering Ring is accused of smothering Copland with gifts — while she was on Cochran’s payroll — to advance the interests of Team Abramoff. Copland pleaded guilty in March to accepting gifts in exchange for official acts, including helping one of Ring and Abramoff’s clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, secure $16.3 million for a new jail.
The government appears to be having second thoughts about another potential witness, Robert Coughlin II, a former lawyer in the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison and deputy chief of staff in the Criminal Division under then-AAG Alice Fisher. Coughlin pleaded guilty in April 2008 to a conflict of interest between his DOJ job and his relationship with Ring. He admitted to helping Ring, his friend of two decades, with the Choctaw matter, among others, and to accepting free concert tickets, luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings.
In meetings with prosecutors on Tuesday and Wednesday, however, Coughlin asserted that “the things of value Mr. Ring gave him did not influence his official actions,” according to a pre-trial letter from Public Integrity Trial Lawyer Michael Ferrara to Ring’s lawyers, who entered the government disclosure into the court record today.
“He opined that the decision to charge him with a felony was an abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” Ferrara said in the letter to Miller & Chevalier’s Andrew Wise and Timothy O’Toole. Coughlin also told DOJ interviewers he believes the government “unfairly singled him out for prosecution,” Ferrara’s letter disclosed.
(Coughlin is the only Justice Department official to become ensnared in the Abramoff probe, though other unnamed officials appear in court filings in his case and elsewhere. Click here for more background on Abramoff’s influence within the department.)
These disclosures, Ring’s lawyers argued in court filings, make clear that Copland and Coughlin “did not enter into an agreement to commit any criminal act, and that the government accordingly has no good faith basis” to use their email or hearsay statements at trial. Ring’s lawyers are pressing U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to strike them.
Also on Wednesday, prosecutors told Ring’s defense team they planned to call three additional witnesses, Daniel Bryant, Su Daly and Gregory Harris — all former Justice Department officials — presumably to substitute for Coughlin, Ring’s filing said. Ring’s lawyers argued the government should be barred from adding these late additions to the witness list. “Mr. Ring could have prepared and filed extensive briefing on why this sort of testimony would be improper. For now, he can simply point out that the lack of percipient knowledge of the witnesses and the impropriety of any opinion testimony that would purport to offer,” Ring’s filing said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment, as did Ring’s defense team.
Meanwhile, Ayres’s apparent refusal to testify raises questions about what potential liability he might consider he has. Ayres, who is now CEO of Ashcroft’s consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group LLC, did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.
Ring’s lawyers want to put Ayres and his wife, Laura Ayres, on the stand to discuss event tickets they received from Ring in 2002 and 2003. The government intends to argue that Ayres took the tickets in exchange for an official act, Ring’s lawyers said in the filings. But they believe that “Mr. Ayres and Ms. Ayres each would provide critical exculpatory testimony regarding the circumstances of Mr. Ayres’ receipt of those tickets and regarding Mr. Ring’s contact with Mr. Ayres on relevant issues,” according to Ring’s court filings. It’s unclear what that exculpatory testimony might be. However, Ring and Ayres have known each other since the late 1990s, when both were on then-Sen. Ashcroft’s Senate staff.
The alleged official act likely circles back to Choctaw jail. Congress earmarked $16.3 million for the project in 2001, but Tracy Henke, then a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Justice Programs, thought the job could be done with $9 million.
Team Abramoff applied pressure, the government says, and eventually the Justice Department reversed itself, doling out the full $16.3 million. It’s still unclear who overruled Henke, if anyone — but that question will likely be answered during the four-to-six week trial. (Henke also works for Ashcroft’s consulting firm, as a principal.)
The Justice Department declined Ring’s request to grant David and Laura Ayres immunity against future prosecution, and they won’t testify without protection, Ring’s filing said. Ring’s lawyers argue that “the refusal to grant immunity and the blanket invocations of the Fifth Amendment privilege in response are unsustainable” because charges against the Ayreses would be time-barred. (Their testimony would be confined to events that occured in 2002 and 2003, beyond the statute of limitations.)
Ring has asked Huvelle to compel immunity or, failing that, to consider another remedy, such as disqualifying government documents or testimony.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
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The Office of Legislative Affairs is staffing up. Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich, who joined the Justice Department from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s staff, announced today the addition of two new deputies, Judith Appelbaum and Mark Agrast.
Appelbaum is the latest to come by way of the American Constitution Society, where she had been director of programs since 2006. Appelbaum (UPenn, Stanford Law) will handle civil and civil rights issues, as well as nominations.
More on her background from the DOJ news release:
[Appelbaum] was Vice President and Legal Director at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), where she participated in litigation, advocacy, and public education activities in many areas of NWLC’s work, with a particular focus on civil rights and judicial nominations. Before that, she served as Counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy on his Judiciary Committee staff and his chief advisor on women’s rights issues.
Agrast (Case Western, Yale Law), was senior vice president for domestic policy and later a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank founded John Podesta, who was co-chair of President Barack Obama’s transition. He will handle criminal and national security matters in his new position. Agrast has more than a decade of experience on Capitol Hill. He was counsel and legislative director to Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and a senior aide to the late Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.)
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Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is threatening to delay confirmation of Justice Department nominees unless he gets answers from the administration about the abrupt firing of the AmeriCorps inspector general, Gerald Walpin.
Grassley revealed his plans in a little-noticed statement inserted into the record of a Senate Judiciary Committee DOJ oversight hearing Wednesday. But we here at Main Justice found it. Read his statement here.
Walpin, a Bush administration holdover, claims he was dismissed from his watchdog post at the Corporation for National and Community Service for political reasons. The controversy is growing, with political bloggers abuzz and both Grassley and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) protesting. Grassley is a long-time government watchdog, and McCaskill helped enact a law requiring the president to give 30 days notice and his reasons for sacking an IG.
Walpin had issued reports about possible misuse of funds in programs run by an Obama supporter, Kevin Johnson, a former professional basketball player who is now the mayor of Sacramento, Calif.; and by the City College of New York. Walpin told the New York Times that major Democratic fund-raiser Alan Solomont, who is on the board of the Corporation, wasn’t happy. In response, the White House issued a statement basically describing Walpin as suffering from dementia.
Read the NYT story here. Read a strongly worded letter Grassley sent to White House Counsel Greg Craig on Wednesday here. Read the Politco story about the Walpin controversy here.
In his statement, Grassley said he wants Attorney General Eric Holder to explain the role the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California and the department played in referring the allegations of misconduct and incompetency against Walpin to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. The acting U.S. Attorney in question is Lawrence G. Brown. Read Brown’s bio here.
Specifically, I want to know whether department regulations require a U.S. Attorney to obtain prior approval of any allegations of misconduct by non-department government officials prior to a referral for investigation or sanction. If there are regulations, I want to know if they were followed in this instance by the acting-U.S. Attorney and who at the department knew of and who approved the allegations of misconduct prior to the referral.
Grassley said he’s discovered that preventing votes on nominees can be an effective way to get cooperation:
“So, until we start getting some answers to these outstanding requests, I’m noticing my intention to hold certain Justice Department nominees,” he said. “I’ll make sure my holds are open and transparent so that the department knows what they need to produce before I release the nominee. Hopefully, this will get the attention of the Attorney General and the rows of Justice Department staffers sitting behind him.”
The Iowa Republican didn’t identify which nominees he might block. DOJ Office of Legal Counsel nominee Dawn Johnsen, Civil Rights Division nominee Thomas Perez and Tax Division nominee Mary L. Smith are still waiting for votes before the full Senate. Office of Legal Policy nominee Christopher Schroeder’s confirmation hearing is next Wednesday. Grassley spokesperson Beth Pellet Levine said Grassley has not said which nominees he would delay if he doesn’t get satisfactory answers.
The Iowa senator had other grievances, too. He said in his statement that Justice hasn’t answered questions he sent to the FBI more than a year ago.
Grassley said he gave Holder a “full binder” of his outstanding questions before he was confirmed by the Senate. Holder and Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ron Weich said they would work to answer all outstanding queries, Grassley said in the statement.
“Well, we confirmed Mr. Weich and it still seems to be business as usual at the department,” Grassley wrote. “I’m tired of hearing nominees say one thing and do another.”
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The Arizona Democratic congressional delegation urged President Obama to nominate Phoenix lawyer Dennis Burke to be the state’s next U.S. Attorney, The Arizona Republic reported today.
Burke, former chief of staff to then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, would succeed U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa who replaced Paul Charlton after the 2006 U.S. Attorney purge. The Republic said the decision to recommend Burke was a matter of “when, not if.”
“I’m glad President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder see what a fine man he is,” former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) told The Republic. “I’m just surprised it didn’t come sooner.”
Burke told The Republic that he was contacted by the Justice Department about Burke, a former counsel to DeConcini on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The former senator said Burke helped him win support for a ban on automatic weapons almost 20 years ago, according to the newspaper.
Conservative Arizona blog Sonoran Alliance called the recommendation “cronyism.” Burke was chief of staff for more than 10 years before he left last year to campaign for Obama, according to The Republic.
“Burke is known for little other than carrying Napolitano’s water at the Attorney General’s Office, then at the Governor’s Office,” the bloggers wrote.
Prior to his posts in the Arizona governor’s office and on the Judiciary Committee, Burke served as a clerk in the Arizona Supreme Court, a special assistant in the DOJ Office of Legislative Affairs and the Arizona chief deputy attorney general, according to The Republic.
“He knows the judicial system inside and out,” DeConcini told the newspaper.
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We are chagrined to say we missed this, but the Senate confirmed Ron Weich to head the DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs yesterday. But it was easy to miss: the nomination was approved by unanimous consent, with no drama.
Here is the statement Weich’s now-former boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), gave on the Senate floor after the nomination was confirmed:
Mr. REID. Mr. President, before I turn this over to Senator Durbin to close, I want to say a word or two about this nomination we just completed. That is the nomination of Ron Weich.
I know Ron has waited with his family for a long time to get this done, but I have tremendously mixed emotions. A part of me was saying: I wish maybe
He is going to lead the Justice Department regarding legislative affairs. He has had prosecutorial experience and Government experience. I know and respect all he has done to strengthen our national security, forward the cause of justice, and raise the ethics standards of our Government and in the whole country. In fact, Ron took a lead role in the last Congress, as we passed the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reforms in the history of our Congress and our country.
Those who know and work with Ron value not only his extensive experience but just the person he is. I express my appreciation to Ron Weich for his sound judgment, his collegiality, his honesty, and loyalty to me. Eric Holder will find the same there.
While many of his colleagues from Columbia University and Yale Law School, where he was educated, are out in the private sector making a lot of money, Ron has spent most of his life in public service. He came back to the Senate after having been in a renowned law firm downtown. But he came back because this is what he wants to do. He is able to make enough money to raise his family. He is not interested in how much money he makes. He is interested in what good he can do for our country.
Our Nation benefits immensely when people as good at what they do as Ron is-and as good to others as Ron is-choose to make a difference.
As I have indicated, I am sad to see him leave this Capitol complex. I am comforted by knowing that Ron will play an important role in rebuilding Attorney General Holder’s Justice Department to a place where all are once again equal under the law, protected by the law, and no one is above the law.
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Ron Weich, whose nomination to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs is slated to come before the Senate this week, will recuse himself from all matters involving mandatory sentencing policies, according to an answer Weich gave to written questions by then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.)
Specter, who switched his party affiliation to Democratic on Tuesday, had asked Weich to explain his views on mandatory sentencing in a follow-up to his April 2 confirmation hearing. Weich, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, responded that he opposes mandatory sentences, but added:
At the outset, please note that if confirmed I intend to recuse myself from legislation concerning mandatory minimums because my wife …. is president of an organization that advocates against mandatory sentencing. I have already consulted with Department of Justice ethics officials to establish a recusal protocol for such matters.
Weich’s wife is Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Stewart started FAMM in 1991, according to her biography on its Web site, after her brother was sentenced to five years in prison for growing marijuana in his garage in Washington state.
That gives Weich a personal connection to an issue he could be dealing with as the DOJ’s liaison to Congress. Social conservatives remain opposed to legalizing pot, but support for changing laws that are now widely flouted appears to be gaining momentum, especially with U.S. demand for the leaf driving a bloody Mexican drug war on our doorstep. Holder said in February the DOJ would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensers in states where such use is legal.
UPDATE: Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in favor of ending sentencing disparities for crack and power cocaine offenses. Weich’s wife’s organization put out a press release hailing the initiative. Read it here.
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Not many questions for Ronald Weich at his Senate nomination hearing Wednesday as Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs.
A long-time Senate staffer who most recently worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Weich received mostly praise from the four Democrats who showed up for the hearing.
The only Republican present was the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). In what’s becoming a pattern for the abortion-rights supporter, Specter used the nomination hearing to twirl to the right on abortion. The 79-year-old Senate veteran faces an increasingly conservative pool of GOP Pennsylvania primary voters in a tough re-election race next year.
Specter inveighed against the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which gave fetuses protected status as legal victims for certain federal crimes, but didn’t have any actual questions for Weich. Weich had testified against the legislation, originally introduced in 1999, as a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP.
Abortion rights supporters had opposed the bill, seeing it as an incremental move toward bestowing rights on fetuses with the aim of eventually criminalizing abortion.
The hearing was moved at the last minute to a cramped room in the Capitol from the Dirksen building to accommodate senators’ voting schedule.
Weich was really just a sideshow. The main act was David Hamilton, a liberal judge nominated to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Republicans boycotted the meeting, according to the Associated Press, saying they hadn’t had enough time to prepare for the hearing.
Specter said that during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, senators were generally given more than 100 days to get ready for nomination hearings. “There has been grossly insufficient time to prepare,” he said.
Most of the four Democrats present lamented that the seven other Republican committee members were not present. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement that the Republicans have delayed several judicial nominations since President Obama took office including those appointments for attorney general, solicitor general and most recently, the nominee for Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen.
“It’s just regrettable,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said adding, “I think they are off to a bad start.”
CQ reported that the nomination of Weich might be part of an ongoing effort by the White House to appoint as many Capitol Hill staffers as it can to “make if awfully hard for Democratic leaders to challenge his politics on a range of issue, from economics to anti-terrorism.”
Weich, who if confirmed would be the point person for pushing the DOJ’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, said he would work to bridge the gap between the Justice Department and the branches of government.
“I think those leaders of the three branches need to speak to each other constructively… and I think I could facilitate that,” Weich said.
His nomination is expected to go before the Judiciary Committee for a vote after the two-week Easter break.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) chief counsel, Ron Weich, will be nominated by President Obama for head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs, reports BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.
Weich held different committee assignments from 1989 to 1997, including time as counsel to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) on the Senate Judiciary Committee, counsel to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. Weich then spent eight years as a lobbyist at Zuckerman Spaeder. Some of his clients included the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Psychological Society, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Since then, Weich has been the top lawyer for Reid and helped shepherd then-Attorney Genral nominee Eric Holder through his confirmation hearings.
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