WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice skirted federal policy guidelines to allow the indictment of four liberal activists on voter fraud charges in Missouri shortly before November's midterm election, a former U.S. attorney told a Senate investigative panel Tuesday.
Bradley Schlozman, who was the interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City last year, also advised the Senate Judiciary Committee that he did not believe the indictments helped Republicans in the election. As it turned out, Democrat Claire McCaskill beat the incumbent, Republican Jim Talent, in the U.S. Senate race in Missouri.
Committee Democrats are trying to show that the White House and Justice Department have played politics with the U.S. attorneys' offices. They are investigating the firings last year of eight top prosecutors, and whether the dismissals were part of a plan to replace them with attorneys who were more willing to bring criminal cases that would help Republican causes.
In Kansas City, the U.S. attorney's office had long been investigating the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and its efforts to register liberal voters.
Todd Graves, who earlier was U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, testified Tuesday that he was aware of the department policy against bringing voter-related charges right before an election. The policy, spelled out in a red handbook given to all U.S. attorneys, states that this kind of case "must await the end of the election" so it cannot be later suggested that prosecutors were trying to influence the vote results.
"I thought it was a bad idea," Graves said about bringing the charges against ACORN before the election. "So we were sort of slow-walking this in the district."
He said that in early 2006, he received a phone call from Michael A. Battle, then head of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, and was told to resign.
Graves said he was not surprised he was being removed. "I long planned to go, and it was the president's prerogative," Graves said. He added that Battle told him there were no performance problems in his office, but just that "it was to give another guy a chance."
Graves was replaced by Schlozman, then a Justice official in Washington who had no trial experience. Less than a week before the November election, Schlozman obtained grand jury indictments against four members of ACORN on allegations of submitting fraudulent voter registrations.
Schlozman, who is back in Washington at the Justice Department, said he sought the indictments after getting approval from department officials, who advised him that the case would not influence the upcoming election.
Schlozman said he was directed by Washington to release a statement about the indictments, saying in part that the charges were part of a national investigation into voter fraud. He added that several Republican groups immediately released their own statements about the indictments, suggesting that Democrats were "trying to steal the election" with voter registration abuse.
Several Senate Democrats expressed anger at how the episode played out in Missouri, with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, arguing that Republicans like Schlozman in the Justice Department ignored their own guidelines in order to advance their conservative ideology.
Holding aloft a copy of the handbook, Leahy told Schlozman: "You used this more for a doorstop that anything else."