MotherJones MA93: Dirty justice

Will Clinton clean up the mess in a department still plagued by scandal and corruption?


Alarmed by reports from confidential sources that critical government documents were disappearing into Department of Justice (DOJ) paper shredders, we released our expose, “Shredded Justice,” five weeks before our Jan./Feb. issue hit the streets.

We also sought the help of attorneys at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), who filed on our behalf a formal request that the archivist of the United States fulfill his statutory responsibility to protect government documents.

Finally, we alerted the Clinton transition team to the shredding. They asked Amy Rudnick, a Washington attorney and former Treasury employee, to look into the matter. But when we tried to contact her, we learned that she was on vacation in Florida for the holidays.

After New Year’s, we finally reached her and asked how the investigation was going. She couldn’t say. “Steve, I used to work at Treasury, and even there I wasn’t under the kind of confidentiality requirements we are under on this transition team,” Rudnick said. “We can’t say anything about anything.” When we spoke with another Democratic National Committee official, he told us that Rudnick had mentioned that she’d been in contact with “someone from Mother Goose magazine.”

We’d gotten a quicker, if not more acceptable, response from Acting Archivist Claudine Weiher. On November 20, the same day we filed our request, we were notified by Weiher that her office “today forwarded your concern to the Attorney General…requesting that he initiate an inquiry into the allegations.”

So, the archivist had sent the fox our report on missing chickens. By law, then-Attorney General William Barr had little choice but to forward the allegations to the Off-ice of the Inspector General of the Justice Department.

But before the IG could investigate, Barr stripped them of the authority to investigate “allegations relating to entire offices of employees–including secretaries, paralegals, and administrative personnel.”

He needn’t have bothered. Although IG Special Agent Dwight Colley, who met with us on January 8, refused to discuss details of the ongoing investigation, a source close to the IG’s office told us that the investigators had already reached the following conclusions:

Yes, they confirmed, there had been “an enormous amount of shredding” in the days following the November election. But DOJ Head of Security Jerry Rubino, whom we’d identified in our piece as the individual responsible, provided the investigators with a list of what he claimed was shredded and an explanation that they accepted: he had been conducting a long overdue cleaning of his untidy office.

Same song, second verse. At the White House, officials were trying to conduct their own housecleaning. Around the time we released our shredding allegations, the Bush administration announced that they would purge the executive branch computer systems of all electronic files before turning the keys over to the Clinton people.

They should have known better. In 1989, the Bush White House had tried to erase all of the Reagan administration’s electronic documents, but they were taken to court by the National Security Archive, a public- interest group that collects declassified government documents. Although the Bush administration eventually agreed to preserve the Reagan records, they did not agree to preserve their own, and near the end of 1992, they informed the court of their plan to wipe the slate clean.

In defending the White House position, the Justice Department claimed that its intentions were purely cordial–after all, if the Bush administration did not remove their material, the Clinton team would not have enough room for their own files.

Federal Judge Charles Richey laughed off the White House’s argument, comparing their plan to burning the furniture of an old tenant to make room for a new one. Instead of destroying the records, he said, the White House must do what everyone else who has a computer does–make backup tapes.

It’s understandable that the White House would be eager to convert their computer files back into random electrons. Those files contain a virtually unedited version of the Reagan/Bush years, including internal memos, drafts of position papers, and executive branch E- mail. They represent not only a valuable adjunct to the documents, positions, and policies released for public consumption, but also a window into the thoughts and rationalizations of the key players in the administration.

The files may also contain the “smoking guns” sought by those investigating the Iran/Contra, BCCI, and Iraqgate scandals.

But the fate and integrity of those files remain in doubt. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Attorney General Barr appointed independent counsel Joseph diGenova to investigate allegations that the White House had been involved in the illegal search of Bill Clinton’s passport files.

During the hoopla surrounding Clinton’s inauguration, diGenova quietly seized the electronic files. He not only took the tape backups, but also snatched the hard drives from some of the machines the Clinton people were to be using, leaving behind a note saying the disks had been seized “pursuant to this subpoena.”

If diGenova grabbed the tapes to get to the bottom of the passport investigation, then all’s well. But just in case, the Clinton DOJ should demand that certified copies of the tapes and the material on those disks be delivered to them immediately.

What was Bill thinking? If President Clinton hopes to get to the bottom of a decade’s worth of scandals and to confront corruption in his own administration, he needs a Justice Department with a squeaky- clean leader and a serious concern for all injustice and crime– whether committed in the streets or in the suites. With jurisdiction over criminal, civil, anti-trust, environmental, and civil rights laws, the DOJ is central to any president’s agenda.

So Clinton’s choice of corporate hired gun Zoe Baird for attorney general was truly inexplicable. Reams have been written about the illegal alien scandal that kept her from getting confirmed, but less attention has been focused on her professional life, which alone should have kept her from being considered for the job.

From 1986 to 1990 Baird was the number-two person in the General Electric Corporation’s general counsel office. During that time GE ran afoul of the law many times. In his 1992 book, Who Will Tell the People, William Greider catalogs the recent criminal and civil record of Baird’s former employer:

  • cheating the army on a $254 million contract for battlefield computers (GE paid $16.1 million in fines);
  • allegedly altering 9,000 daily labor vouchers to inflate its Pentagon billings on jet engines (GE paid a $3.5 million settlement);
  • attempting to pay a $1.25 million bribe to a Puerto Rican official for a $92 million power plant contract (three GE executives went to prison);
  • defrauding the air force on a Minuteman intercontinental missile contract ($1 million in fines);
  • allegedly selling nuclear reactor parts known to be defective (GE agreed to a sealed settlement: amount unknown);
  • discriminating against women and minorities ($32 million settlement);
  • allegedly overcharging the army for battle tank parts ($900,000 settlement); and
  • bearing responsibility for no fewer than forty-seven of the EPA’s Superfund toxic cleanup sites.

Much of GE’s legal trouble was the result of information made public by whistle-blowers within the company.

Instead of supporting these people, Baird gained a well-deserved reputation as a foe of anyone who bucked the corporation. In 1989, she lobbied to weaken the False Claims Act, which gives protection to corporate whistle-blowers. She also designed a “self-compliance” program requiring GE employees who suspected fraud to report their suspicions immediately or become liable for the fraud themselves.

The program was a public relations coup for GE, but according to Scott Armstrong of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a public-interest group supporting corporate whistle-blowers, it actually discouraged employees from reporting corruption. “If an employee suspects their superiors of fraud,” Armstrong said, “most are going to wait a while to be absolutely certain. But by the time they are certain, some time has passed since they first suspected the fraud, now making them liable as well.”

Furthermore, Armstrong claimed, GE has never rewarded a company whistle-blower.

In any case, Baird’s work at GE didn’t change their corporate tendency toward corruption. After she left, the company was again caught running with wolves and had to cough up $69 million to settle government fraud charges for false billings made during Baird’s tenure.

Perhaps Scott Armstrong came closest to giving voice to the uneasiness that many felt about Baird’s nomination. “Look, I’m not saying that a GE or anyone else accused of a crime does not deserve good legal representation,” Armstrong said. “That’s not the point. The point is that mobster John Gotti’s lawyer might be an ethical person and a good lawyer, but you certainly would not appoint John Gotti’s lawyer head of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, would you?”

During his campaign, Bill Clinton’s stump speech had a sound bite that always drew applause: “We are going to return Washington to the people in this country who work hard and play by the rules.”

What were Clinton and his advisers thinking when they selected Baird? In our last issue, we warned that Clinton might be tempted by the idea of a politicized Justice Department answerable only to him. Insofar as the Baird nomination was indicative of the president’s leanings, the omens are not good.

Now that a chastened Clinton is settled in the Oval Office, maybe he should put up a sign that says, “The Principles, Stupid!”