WASHINGTON — As Eric H. Holder Jr. gears up to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee today for his confirmation as attorney general, some Republicans say they will question him aggressively about whether his ties to Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich are more extensive than Holder has acknowledged.
GOP staffers investigating Holder's background say that although he has downplayed his connections to Blagojevich, new information suggests Holder did legal work for Blagojevich on an investigation into the controversial award of a state casino gambling license by the Illinois Gaming Board.
The Republicans said they have obtained a letter Holder wrote to the board requesting records on the casino license. Holder did not bill the state for any work. Even so, the GOP senators want to know the details of that arrangement, and why Holder initially left out any mention of it -- and of his relationship to the now-disgraced Illinois governor -- in the disclosure form that he was required to file with the committee for his confirmation.
"I have every anticipation that the issue will be talked about at length during the confirmation hearings," said a staffer working on it with the Senate GOP leadership. "It is certainly an issue that has not been fully aired or answered."
Nick Shapiro, an Obama transition spokesman, said Holder was chosen "because of his extensive experience in investigating and prosecuting corrupt public officials," and that he was "prepared to follow the facts wherever they led and make a report to the people of the state. Holder's firm never signed an official retainer agreement with the state because the state could not resolve which agency would actually employ the firm and because of a contractual issue unrelated to the investigation itself."
In 2004, Blagojevich tapped Holder as a special investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board, which had approved a controversial license for a casino to be built in Rosemont, Ill.
Responding to rumors of corruption and mob connections, Blagojevich promised a full, independent investigation. At a March 2004 news conference, he introduced Holder as the state's special investigator into the matter. But the investigation was canceled almost immediately, after some state officials objected to Holder's appointment.
Last month, the controversy resurfaced when Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges. About a week later, Holder submitted his background report, which was supposed to contain all of his business relationships in the eight years he had spent in private practice since he left the Justice Department at the end of the Clinton administration.
When the Senate committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), asked Holder why he had not mentioned it, Holder said the deal had never actually "materialized" and that he had "never performed substantive work on the matter."
Committee investigators then filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the gaming board, and received an April 2, 2004, letter from Holder in which he told the board that he had been appointed to conduct the investigation and wanted to be provided with relevant documents.
Committee investigators said that numerous senators on the committee were concerned about whether Holder was providing them with a full picture of the deal and why Blagojevich chose him for it. And they said their failure to get information on the subject was part of a pattern in which the Democratic majority on the committee was not being fully cooperative with their efforts to thoroughly investigate Holder's actions as a Clinton administration official and a private lawyer.
Erica Chabot, a spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department had delivered 720 pages of documents to the Republicans. A committee staffer denied that the Democratic majority had been uncooperative.
Holder, 57, has won wide support from Democrats and Republicans, who say his extensive resume makes him among the most qualified attorney general nominees in recent times.
Besides being the first black deputy attorney general and acting attorney general, Holder has been a judge, a federal prosecutor, a Justice Department official heading up public corruption investigations and a high-powered lawyer in private practice representing major corporations in criminal and civil cases.
But critics, many of them Republicans in Congress, say Holder will face tough questioning today over other issues as well, including his role in several Clinton-era clemency cases like the pardons of fugitive financier Marc Rich, drug dealer Carlos Vignali and 16 members of two Puerto Rican nationalist groups that committed terrorist acts in the U.S.