Holder's DC Legacy: Not Much

| Wed Nov. 19, 2008 3:32 PM EST

Eric Holder seems poised to sail smoothly into a historic appointment: the first African American attorney general of the United States. He brings to the job everything you might want in the nation's top prosecutor: decades of experience working in the department he will oversee, with a special emphasis on prosecuting corrupt public officials; service as a local DC judge, and a temperament nearly as cool as Obama's. The only possible hitch in his ascension to AG is his role in Bill Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, who was once married to a Clinton donor.

Given Holder's otherwise squeaky-clean reputation and a democratic Congress, that minor hiccup isn't likely to slow him down. What might give some members of Congress pause, however, is Holder's record as US Attorney for the District of Columbia during the Clinton administration. If Democrats are looking for a crusader to clean house at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the federal government, Holder might not be their man.

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In 1997, I wrote a lengthy story for the Washington City Paper critical of Holder for not doing more to prosecute public corruption in the District, which at the time, was headline news. Marion Barry had recently won another term as mayor after coming out of prison, and had generated a host of good material for an aggressive prosecutor. Yet as I wrote in 1997:

[F]or all the love Holder has engendered in the community as U.S. Attorney, he has had precious little impact on the city's endemic municipal corruption. Barry has returned to his old tricks, nudging contracts and city jobs to old cronies and new girlfriends...

Holder…has not had a single high-profile D.C. public corruption case since he became U.S. Attorney. By comparison, during his 5-year tenure [former U.S. Attorney Joseph] diGenova successfully prosecuted two deputy mayors and a dozen lower-level city officials. Holder may have had his way with the media and kept the community at bay, but now that he seems to be moving on, people are wondering why he isn't leaving behind a more honest, or at least more chaste, D.C. government.

Holder is, by nearly all accounts, an extremely nice guy. As US attorney, he schmoozed with the neighborhoods, addressed the office's dismal record on domestic violence prosecution, and generated a host of gushy press reports that never failed to mention his membership in Concerned Black Men. By staying out of the cesspool of municipal government, he managed to avoid creating even the slightest appearance of controversy, something his predecessors had generated tons of (all of which makes his involvement with the Rich pardon so curious).

Even as he wooed the press, Holder knew how to keep his mouth shut, a quality Obama will no doubt value. His office was virtually leak-proof, a major change from his predecessors like diGenova, who to this day remains a serious blabbermouth. But Holder's reluctance to bring charges against city officials also prompted speculation that he distrusted city juries, a lack of confidence that's not an especially desirable quality in a top prosecutor. It also conveyed a certain amount of snobbery that only compounded the perception that the US attorney, who also prosecutes federal crime, could not be bothered with piddly little municipal corruption cases.

One city official practically thumbed her nose at Holder after she was caught holding drivers' licenses from two different jurisdictions and voting in DC elections even though she actually lived in Maryland. (She voted in a special election that was decided by a single vote.) Fraudulently registering to vote is a felony in DC. But when the Washington Post confronted her about it, the former taxicab commissioner said brazenly, "Hey, arrest me!" No one did, the woman continued to vote in city elections, and Holder's office never did a thing about the highly publicized act of lawbreaking.

Previous US attorneys in the District, who were white and Republican, had spent an inordinate amount of time and resources trying to put Marion Barry behind bars. Those decisions earned them little but outright hostility from city residents, so Holder's appointment and approach came as welcome change. Even so, members of the DC Council and other public servants working to clean up the city government complained that Holder had gone a little too far the other way. They thought he was depriving the city of some of the much-needed sunshine that can come with a public trial. Holder's reluctance to pull the trigger on many of the investigations generated by law enforcement in DC ensured that many of those responsible for the city's dysfunction continued to flourish. (As the former city auditor told me at the time, "No one ever makes the bad guys pay back the money. If you don't mind a little embarrassment in DC, you can steal to your heart's content.")

Many in DC's legal community had long speculated that the U.S. Attorney's office was just a way station for Holder, and suspected him of coveting a federal judgeship. He was clearly defensive about this when I met him. He told me back then, "I want to make clear that the decisions I've made in this office with regard to what I've said about any issue, any speeches I've given, any prosecutive decisions I've made, have absolutely nothing to do with furthering my career." Weeks later, he became deputy attorney general.