The kindest word one can apply to Attorney General Eric Holder's record is "undistinguished." Now that his time in office is drawing to a close, it's clear that his failure to pursue criminal bankers will always overshadow his other accomplishments in public memory. But President Obama's tenure is not yet over, and his next pick for attorney general could help reshape both the nation and his own legacy.
Two candidates could be truly transformative as the next Attorney General: Former regulator William K. Black and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
A change is needed.
Holder's refusal to pursue criminal action against his former Wall Street clients was matched only by his contemptuous dismissal of the criticism engendered by his inaction. He attempted to disguise this inaction with false claims which earned widespread rebukes. He ran out the clock on a number of criminal prosecutions. He oversaw the indictments of twice as many government leakers than in all previous administrations put together, insisting that they required "very aggressive action." He didn't feel the same way about the bank fraud which decimated millions of lives and nearly destroyed the economy.
As economist Dean Baker reminded us after his departure, the problem isn't that Eric Holder never put Robert Rubin, Lloyd Blankfein, or other chiefs of lawbreaking banks behind bars. The problem is that he never even tried.
The outgoing attorney general's Wall Street record reflects rather poorly on the president who appointed him. Which raises the question: Who should President Obama nominate to replace him? That choice will influence his legacy forever. It could also help -- or hinder -- efforts to build enthusiasm and support among progressives and the Democratic base.
William K. Black, Fraud Fighter
Here's one name the president should consider: William K. Black. Black served as a regulator under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In that capacity, he oversaw the prosecution and conviction of more than 1,000 bankers during the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s. Black has noted many times that this scandal was far smaller than the 2008 bank crisis, in both the economic damage caused and the level of criminality involved.
And yet, despite the vastly larger scope of the recent crisis, the number of Big Bank executives prosecuted by the Holder Justice Department remains unchanged: 0.
As a Professor of Law and Economics at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and as a writer ("The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One"), Black has been a tireless advocate for reasonable, common-sense corporate law enforcement like that which we saw during the administrations he served. (A Republican President would certainly not be so diligent today; nevertheless, the contrast stands as a sharp rebuke for the Oval Office's current occupant.)
In his public appearances, most recently on Bill Moyers' Journal, Black has continued to make the case for prosecuting Wall Street bankers -- and for Holder's dereliction in this regard. What's more, Black's deep understanding of "control fraud" and other corporate crimes would make him the ideal Attorney General for these times.
Black is willing to pursue corporate malfeasance, wherever it may lead. We learned that in our own interview with him, when he addressed Apple's negligence and control fraud in encouraging unsafe practices and ignoring safety warnings which eventually led to the mistreatment and burning deaths of Chinese workers. This is, as Black explained, "anti-employee control fraud." (See "Hell is Cheaper: China, Apple, and the Economics of Horror.")
A proactive attorney general like William K. Black would go a long way toward restoring the principle of equal justice for all -- and the public's demoralized (but sadly accurate) perception of it.
Tom Perez, Advocate for the 99 Percent
Granted, the image of Attorney General Bill Black may be a bridge too far for this president. If so, he need look no further than the already-published lists of possible nominees. If sources like the Los Angeles Times and Politico are correct, speculation is now narrowing down to three potential picks: White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez.
Tom Perez would be an excellent choice. Several observers have commented on the undeniable political benefit of nominating a Hispanic American for attorney general, but Perez also brings a uniquely powerful set of qualifications to the position. He has a long and impressive track record fighting for the rights of working people, minorities, and other everyday Americans -- the people who are sometimes called "the 99 percent" -- against the illegal predations of the rich and powerful. That's exactly the kind of attorney general this country needs.
As Labor Secretary, Perez has been one of the president's most impressive Cabinet members. He has fought fervently, and eloquently, for a higher minimum wage, greater workplace protections, stronger organizing rights, and improved protections against all forms of discrimination. He has been a major architect of the presidential executive orders which use the Federal government's purchasing power to expand legal protections and raise the minimum wage for hundreds of thousands of workers.
Before he became Labor Secretary, Perez headed the Justice Department's Civil Rights division and guided it toward the decisive actions which have been the brightest spots in Eric Holder's otherwise clouded legacy. He led the push against voter ID laws, a thinly-disguised GOP voter suppression tactic directed against minorities. He successfully defended a key feature of the Fair Housing Act from being gutted by the Supreme Court and won a major lawsuit against Countrywide for its discriminatory lending practices. Prior to his Federal service, Perez aggressively pursued cases of corporate workplace fraud when he ran Maryland's Department of Labor.
Tom Perez's record indicates that he would be an exemplary attorney general. His nomination would have the added benefit of exciting both Latinos and the left. And, unlike a number of other political progressives, Perez reportedly enjoys a relationship of comfort and trust with the President.
It's true that Perez, like many Administration officials, has been targeted for witch hunts by House Republicans, but nothing significant came of them. In any case it is the Senate, not the House, which confirms presidential appointments. Perez has already been confirmed twice for Federal posts there, and Senate rules changes would make it even easier for Perez to be confirmed by the current Senate.
The President's Decision
This is an important juncture in American history. There is a battle underway for basic American rights: for freedom from discrimination, for safety and fair play on the job, for free speech and the right to vote. We are also in the midst of a struggle to restore the fundamental principle that there is one justice system for the rich and poor alike.
In this critical moment, we need an attorney general who can fight these battles on behalf of the American people. Outstanding candidates are available, including William K. Black and Tom Perez. All that's needed is a leader with the courage to choose one of them, or someone like them, and then stand behind them in the conflicts that are sure to come.
The choice is now in the president's hands.