Q&A: Paul Charlton

Paul Charlton, fired US attorney, on what the Department of Justice suffered under Attorney General Gonzales.

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Mother Jones: Of the things that the Bush administration will be leaving behind, what is the hardest to fix?

Paul Charlton: One of the greatest disappointments was the harm that was done to the reputation of the Department of Justice. Like a reputation for anyone, an institution’s reputation is very difficult to gain, but very easy to lose. Its reputation suffered because of what happened under Attorney General Gonzales’ leadership, and its going to take some time to regain the trust that was lost as a result of decisions that he made.

MJ: Which decisions specifically? The ones related to the firing of seven US attorneys, yourself included?

PC: I think in larger terms it would be decisions that politicized the department. Those took many different forms, including hiring individuals based on their political affiliation. Also, there’s currently an investigation by the inspector general that indicates at least one individual did not get a promotion because of a perceived sexual orientation. Then there was the firing of David Iglesias, the US attorney in New Mexico who was pressured by Sen. Pete Dominici to bring indictments against Democrats prior to the November 2006 election. All of this caused great harm to the Justice Department’s reputation for being fair and impartial.

MJ: Which problems will be easy to fix?

PC: Well, many of the problems have their root in personalities who are within the Justice Department, so the easiest fix is to weed those personalities out. Whoever our next president is will have to make it a priority to find the individuals who believe that justice is oriented toward politics as opposed to doing what’s right. Once you remove those individuals and replace them with people who understand that justice wears a blindfold, then I think you’ll have gone a long way toward repairing the reputation of the Justice Department.

MJ: Are those individuals at the very top of the department, or would you say they’re sprinkled throughout?

PC: I think they’re sprinkled throughout. You get individuals who are at the very top, and then you have individuals who were hired based on their political affiliations—people who were espousing their membership in the Federalist Society as a means of gaining entry into the Justice Department. That’s a fine organization, but it’s not a prerequisite for becoming a federal prosecutor.

MJ: In terms of the president’s direct involvement with the Justice Department, what have been his key policy failures?

PC: He selected an attorney general who would not act independently or in the best interests of justice. He selected Alberto Gonzales, someone who he knew was malleable. Someone who he knew would put loyalty above justice, and I think that’s the consequence that we paid. You need to have an individual in that department, probably more so than any other, who understands that the decisions they make not only affect the liberty interests of individuals but can in some instances affect whether or not we take another person’s life. So that person has to be at his core an individual who understands what justice means.

MJ: How would you compare Ashcroft and Gonzales, in terms of their leadership styles and legacy?

PC: Well, Attorney General Ashcroft was an independent thinker. There are many who disagree with his politics, but he was nothing if not independent.

MJ: Yes, that’s become clearer since Gonzales.

PC: That’s true. The contrast has been startling. The famous bedside scene with Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey at the intensive care unit, where Attorney General Ashcroft was in his bed while then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales attempted to get him to sign off on an NSA program that both Comey and Ashcroft believed was unconstitutional is in my mind the clearest example of the kind of independence that Ashcroft believed in and stood up for. And it shows the kind of banana republic that Gonzales was looking for—a government where people who would just sign off on documents without truly considering their constitutionality.

MJ: Do you think the damage caused by Gonzales is irreparable?

PC: No, it’s not. These institutions are driven by human beings. The framework of the institutions is extraordinary. The individuals who created our republic more than 200 years ago were geniuses in the way that they put it together. The only fault is in the humans who sit within that framework. So if we can find people who understand what it means to be fair and impartial, that is the key to bringing things back to where they should be.

MJ: When a new administration enters office, what needs to be done first within the Justice Department to get it back on the right track?

PC: Weed out the bad and seed in the good.

MJ: How difficult will that be?

PC: Not very difficult. Those people have made their feelings and opinions known, and they’re well identified.

MJ: Who in particular are you thinking about?

PC: Well, there are a few people, but I’d hate to mention them.

MJ: What should the next president learn from Bush’s failures in leadership?

PC: That’s a great question. Just focusing on the Department of Justice, I think the lesson is that the model of an attorney general is someone like John Ashcroft or Janet Reno, both of whom hold very different political views. But both of whom understood that once put into office, their job was to act in the best interest of justice. Reno, for example, is known to oppose the death penalty, and yet, when she thought it was appropriate, she sought the death penalty. Ashcroft is known to have favored the death penalty, and I know from personal experience that when he saw the death penalty was about to be imposed in error, he was willing to reverse a decision that he had previously made because it was the right thing to do. So they are the kind of individuals who will put ideology to one side, and our Constitution to the fore. And those are the sorts of individuals that the next president should be looking for. Career prosecutors want that kind of leadership.


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