Four days before Connecticut's Nora Dannehy was appointed to investigate the Bush administration's U.S. attorney firing scandal, a team of lawyers she led was found to have illegally suppressed evidence in a major political corruption case.
This previously unreported fact from Dannehy's past calls into question her entire national investigation. The revelation similarly compromises the pending investigation by her Connecticut colleague, John Durham, who since 2008 has been the nation's special prosecutor for DOJ and CIA decision-making involving torture.
Here's the story, which the Justice Integrity Project I lead just broke in Nieman Watchdog:
In September 2008, the Bush Justice Department appointed Connecticut career federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy to investigate allegations that Bush officials in 2006 illegally fired nine U.S. attorneys who wouldn't politicize official corruption investigations.
But just four days before her appointment, a federal appeals court had ruled that a team of prosecutors led by Dannehy illegally suppressed evidence in a major political corruption case in Connecticut. The prosecutors' misconduct was so serious that the court vacated seven of the eight convictions in the case.
The ruling didn't cite Dannehy by name, and although it was publicly reported it apparently never came up in the news coverage of her appointment.
But it now calls into question the integrity of her investigation by raising serious concerns about her credibility -- and about whether she was particularly vulnerable to political pressure from within the Justice Department.
Now, almost two years later, Dannehy has provided arguably the most important blanket exoneration for high-level U.S. criminal targets since President George H.W. Bush pardoned six Iran-Contra convicts post-election in late 1992.
The DOJ announced on July 21 that it has "closed the case" on the nine unprecedented mid-term firings because Dannehy found no criminal wrongdoing by DOJ or White House officials.
But the official description of her inquiry indicates that she either placed or acceded to constraints on the scope of her probe that restricted it to the firing of just one of the ousted U.S. attorneys, not the others -- and not to the conduct of the U.S. attorneys who weren't ousted because they met whatever tests DOJ and the White House created.
And although reaction to the closing of the inquiry has been muted, some observers are accusing her of a whitewash.
"This is an outrageous act of cowardice and cover-up!" former Alabama governor and alleged political prosecution victim Don Siegelman emailed me regarding DOJ's decision and the failure to interview him.
The Supreme Court vacated much of Siegelman's conviction last month after years of controversy, including charges by Republican whistleblowers that he was prosecuted primarily because he was a Democrat. As a result, House Judiciary Committee leaders and Siegelman's first trial judge, U.W. Clemon, last year separately urged Attorney Gen. Eric Holder to investigate suspected DOJ prosecution irregularities in what Clemon called "the most unfounded" prosecution he'd witnessed in nearly three decades on Alabama's federal bench.
Dannehy's probe, my reporting suggests, was compromised from the beginning.
She was appointed by Bush Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on Sept. 29, 2008. On Sept. 25, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City found misconduct in a 2003 trial she had led.
The court found that the prosecution suppressed evidence that could have benefited the defendant, Connecticut businessman Charles B. Spadoni (pictured). Spadoni had been convicted of participating in a plot by his then-employer, Triumph Capital, Inc., to bribe former state Treasurer Paul Silvester to invest $200 million of state pension money with his firm.
But the appeals court found that prosecutors had failed to turn over to the defense an FBI agent's notes of a key interview they conducted with Silvester's attorney. In doing so, the court ruled, "the government deprived Spadoni of exculpatory evidence going to the core of its bribery case against him."
The court reversed Spadoni's convictions on seven counts of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud, leaving intact only an obstruction of justice conviction.
Prosecutors found by a court to have committed misconduct typically face some sort of internal investigation within the Justice Department. But whether there was any such investigation, and why or why not, is not publicly known.
As it happens, the Spadoni case also raises concerns relative to the ongoing federal probe of potential Bush administration wrongdoing in covering up torture that is being led by John H. Durham, another prosecutor from Connecticut. Durham supervised Dannehy's decade-long prosecution of Spadoni.
Like Dannehy, Durham was appointed by Mukasey in 2008 to be a special prosecutor with national responsibility. Durham's initial charge was to investigate suspected destruction of dozens of torture tapes by CIA personnel. In 2009, Holder expanded that probe to other decision-making, including by DOJ personnel.
Until now, neither DOJ nor anyone else has linked Dannehy and Durham by name to the prosecutorial misconduct against Spadoni, as far as I can determine. The court decision doesn't cite specific actions by the two. But it clearly refers to their case, and the information is readily available online in Lexis and in any good law library.
In April, as the acting U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, Durham signed a DOJ filing denying the merit of the appeals court finding of prosecution misconduct, while calling for Spadoni's continued prosecution for the remaining charge of obstruction of justice for deleting computer files in advance of a potential subpoena.
I sought additional comment beyond the court filings from Dannehy, Durham and Thomas Carson, DOJ's spokesman for its Connecticut office. Carson wrote me, "We have no further comment, as the matter is still pending."
The DOJ's letter said Dannehy found that the evidence "did not demonstrate any prosecutable criminal offense" in the 2006 firing of former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, and stated that there was no basis to broaden the investigation beyond his circumstances.
Iglesias, a Bush appointee whose 2008 book In Justice had a chapter entitled, "All Roads Lead to Rove," wrote me last year that he largely wants to put his ordeal behind him. Now returned to his original field of working in military justice, he told investigative reporter Jason Leopold:
I'm glad the matter is finally over. I'm gratified the Justice Department took the matter seriously enough to appoint an experienced corruption prosecutor to investigate. I will not second-guess her findings. I hope this scandal prevents future administrations and political leaders from attempting to politicize U.S. Attorneys.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers issued this comment:
It is clear that Ms. Dannehy's determination is not an exoneration of Bush officials in the U.S. attorney matter as there is no dispute that these firings were totally improper and that misleading testimony was given to Congress in an effort to cover them up.
One such official, former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who was forced out over the scandal, commented to CNN, "I feel angry that I had to go through this. That my family had to suffer through and what for?"
But several close observers of the case cried cover-up.
Human rights attorney and Harper's blogger columnist Scott Horton wrote, in a post titled, "Another Audacious Whitewash at DOJ":
Rather than look at the entire U.S. attorneys scandal, Dannehy settled on a probe of a single case: that involving New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. This is the one case in which the available evidence showed that the decision was taken by President Bush himself, in the White House....
The probe should have examined the entire pattern of terminations as a common scheme and taken it as a basis for action. Instead, other related cases were - as I am informed by persons involved in them - shunted off to the Justice Department's "roach motel," the Office of Professional Responsibility, where they will likely languish without any serious investigation, much less any action.
Nora Dannehy's decision to take no action, coupled with all the lame rationalizations of inaction that preceded it, is another self-administered bullet wound to the integrity of the Justice Department...How can a Justice Department hold its own personnel to a lower standard under the law than they hold other public officials? This is a formula for disaster.
Investigative reporter Wayne Madsen repeated in a subscription-only post his 2009 report that Dannehy and her family have benefited from career-building decision-making that sometimes conflicts with her "tough" reputation. In charting the Dannehy family's career progressions during the past decade, Madsen cited, for example, her husband's appointment in 2007 to become director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center.
In addition, Alabama legal affairs blogger Roger Shuler, who has closely documented what he has described as political prosecutions in the Deep South, published "Shirley Sherrod Is Not the Only One Who Has Been 'Put Through Hell.'" The article compared the plight of Alabama DOJ whistleblower Tamarah Grimes (pictured) to that of Sherrod, the Georgia employee of U.S. Department of Agriculture who was fired after false accusations were made against her this month.
Grimes was fired in June 2009 from her job as a paralegal in the Middle District of Alabama, eight days after writing a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder outlining misconduct in the prosecution of former Governor Don Siegelman. Grimes remains without a job and says she has faced significant financial and emotional stress....Tamarah Grimes has an important message for the Obama administration. It did, to its credit, try to get things right in the Shirley Sherrod matter. But its double standard on matters of "injustice" is glaring.
My Justice Integrity Project published a profile of Grimes that includes background on her and DOJ's reaction, which is to deny all of her allegations of government misconduct. DOJ also claimed that she was fired for once saying she had taped evidence of wrongdoing in the office. She denied describing or making any tapes.
A Republican, Grimes has told me that she has wanted to testify to Congress or any other official body about the vast waste and unfairness she witnessed, including by the Bush political holdover Middle District U.S. Attorney Leura Canary.
Canary's husband is William Canary, leader of the Business Council of Alabama and former campaign manager against Siegelman's 2002 opponent, current Republican Gov. Bob Riley. Sworn testimony before congressional staff never explored by DOJ itself by calling the witnesses suggests that William Canary was at the center of the plot begun with his wife and his friend and then-White House advisor Karl Rove in 2002 to frame Siegelman.
But even under the Obama administration, Bush-appointee Leura Canary continues to run the Alabama office that prosecuted Siegelman as of today, more than 18 months after Obama took office. Grimes is now out of work and about to lose her home to foreclosure.
What's next? "Nora Dannehy has not contacted me," Grimes wrote me of DOJ's nationwide probe. "If the DOJ is conducting its own 'inquiry' history tells us that it is one hundred percent whitewash."
The unprecedented mid-term purge of nine U.S. Attorney by the Bush administration created a firestorm in Congress when word leaked out in 2007, partly because of fears that many of the remaining U.S. attorneys in the nation's 93 offices were being forced to make politicized decisions to keep their jobs. Then-attorney general Alberto Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, had recommended to White House senior advisor Karl Rove that they populate prosecution offices with "loyal Bushies."
For years, defendants in official corruption cases around the nation have been counting on DOJ to investigate any wrongdoing involved in the purge. In 2007, the House Judiciary Committee cited research by University of Missouri professor Donald Shields into news reports of Bush DOJ probes of elected officials, candidates and fund-raisers. The Shields findings, most recently of some 1,200 elected officials, candidates and fund-raisers from throughout the eight years of the administration, showed that the targets were nearly 5:1 Democrats.
The investigations and convictions deeply affected the nation's political map and policy-making since most targets lose their jobs and careers, bringing shame on their supporters as well. So, the patterns are important not simply to the often financially devastated defendants and their families, but also to a wider group of those concerned about government policy across the range of potential decision-making in such varied matters as health, jobs, education or public safety.
The bipartisan Justice Integrity Project was founded to investigate such cases under both Bush and Obama administrations.
In this, we have followed the March 2007 warning of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who said the real story isn't the firing of nine prosecutors. Instead, he urged, the public needs to know what the remaining 84 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys were doing to keep their jobs.
Our in-depth investigative reporting has exposed serious irregularities in the prosecutions of Democrats Don Siegelman, New Jersey mayoral candidate Louis Manzo and forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. We've found similar abuses in the prosecutions of Republicans Ted Stevens (the Alaskan senator whose convictions were vacated because of suppression of evidence), Die Hard filmmaker John McTiernan and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, plus several non-partisan targets in the military or other national defense work. Details of these "leading cases" are on our website.
But Dannehy never contacted such victims, who almost uniformly tell me they want to testify under oath before an impartial investigator. Similarly, there's no indication from DOJ comments about the 60 witnesses she interviewed that any of them were third party experts best known for their research in this field.
Is there good reason for that, or is it part of a pattern in which prosecutors tend to find scant wrongdoing against their colleagues, in part by not looking?
A question reporters and the public need to pursue is whether a culture of error and cover-up prevailed in the Department of Justice under Bush and continues under President Obama.
It is one thing to want to look forward, as Obama stated as he took office. But it is wrong and immoral for our criminal system not to examine what appear to be obvious abuses that discredit the justice system, local and regional politics, and, indeed, our nation's standing in the world as a beacon of democracy and civil rights.
Ironically, the appeals court finding of misconduct by the team led by Durham and Dannehy leaves only a disputed obstruction of justice count against Spadoni that focuses on his deletion of files from his computer as he feared that his company would receive a subpoena.
In certain ways, the vast resources that DOJ has expended in pursuing him and Grimes parallels Durham's investigation of CIA personnel, who under the Bush administration allegedly destroyed dozens of videotapes showing the torture of terror suspects. Whether DOJ will seek to hold government personnel accountable in the same way is a question that remains open and divisive.
But this is now a matter for Congress, which must summon the obvious witnesses without further dithering.
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more