Corruption at the Justice Department
When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, as now seems likely, is held in contempt of Congress in the next few days he will join a long list of the nation’s chief law enforcement officers who have run afoul of Congress and/or the law.
Whether the fast and furious controversy surrounding Holder is really sufficient to warrant finding him in contempt of Congress is a subject for another day. I will note that in most cases were an Attorney General has gotten seriously crosswise with Congress have been decidedly more bi-partisan affairs than Holder’s. History remembers when the AG offends both parties, not so much when the alleged offense seems more political than pernicious.
At that other extreme, consider the case of Attorney General Harry P. Daugherty. That’s him in the photo. Daugherty was an Ohio pol, campaign manager for Warren G. Harding and up until John Mitchell, Nixon’s AG who went to jail over Watergate, arguably the most corrupt head of the Justice Department in our history.
Harding, of course, is often at or near the bottom of those surveys of the country’s worst presidents. He can thank his friend Harry Daugherty for a good deal of that reputation.
Daugherty was forced to resign as Attorney General in 1923 after a bi-partisan Senate committee conducted a free-wheeling investigation into his leadership at the Justice Department. Progressive Democratic Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana led the Senate probe even though the Senate was controlled by Republicans. The nominal chair of the Senate Select Committee, a figure now lost to history, but worth remembering, was Iowa Sen. Smith Brookhart, a liberal Republican in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition. Brookhart and Wheeler knew each other, trusted each other and were pretty sure Daugherty was oily or worse. He was.
Wheeler’s investigation was sensational in the full tabloid meaning of the word, including testimony about gambling, girls and bootleg gin. The fact that the investigation of Attorney General Daugherty came in the wake of the equally sensational, and ultimately more important, Teapot Dome investigation, guaranteed that Wheeler and his motley cast of witnesses – a gumshoe, a call girl and various small-time confidence men – would get front page coverage. Daugherty resigned just ahead of an impeachment effort, but went out with his verbal guns blazing. The former Attorney General convinced himself Wheeler was a Communist agent – the foremost commie in the Senate, he said – and a seriously dangerous man. He wasn’t.
In the annuls of Senate history the Daugherty investigation helped establish an enduring principle that ironically allows California Rep. Darryl Issa to put Eric Holder through the wringer today. As part of the Senate investigation of Harding’s attorney general, Daugherty’s brother Malachi or Mal, a small-town, small-time corrupt Ohio banker, was called to testify before Wheeler’s committee. Mal Daugherty refused and was held in contempt. (He eventually went to jail for stealing from his own bank.)
Mal challenged the constitutionality of a Senate committee being able to compel his testimony, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Court held in a unanimous ruling that the power of Congress to investigate and compel appearance by witness was an essential part of the legislative process. Thank a crook and a crooked Attorney General for the enduring principle of the Congressional investigation.
The job of Attorney General is arguably the most controversial in the Cabinet. Harry Daugherty was a small-time pol, likely profoundly corrupt, who should never have had the job. John Mitchell, Nixon’s finance guy, was similar with no particularly distinguished legal career and seeing the job as more about politics than policy or justice. Robert Kennedy, one of the most famous and powerful AG’s, was his brother’s political enforcer and chief confidante. (Can you imagine a president being able to get away today with having his brother at the Justice Department?)
Franklin Roosevelt’s first AG, Homer Cummings, was a political operative first and a not very skillful administrator second. Woodrow Wilson had three AG’s, including the infamous A. Mitchell Palmer, architect of the Palmer Raids that rounded up, mostly under highly dubious circumstances, various alleged radicals in 1919 and 1920 and set off the Red Scare.
The list of truly great Attorneys General is a good deal smaller than those who failed to distinguish themselves in the job. Judge Griffin Bell in the Carter years comes to mind as well as Nicholas Katzenbach in the Johnson Administration and Edward Levi, who distinguished himself in the Ford Administration.
Eric Holder may or may not be the target of an unfair and purely partisan election year attack, laced with just enough gun background noise to really appeal to the GOP base, but if he has studied the history of the Justice Department he should know that being AG almost always entitled the holder of the job to be vilified and hauled before Congress to account for all sorts of misdeeds both real and imagined. Perhaps the current Attorney General can take some comfort in knowing he’s not the first.