Justice in Indian country
Light shed on 'shameful' U.S. Attorney firings
Editor's note: This week, Indian Country Today begins an ongoing series that examines justice in Indian country. To share your comments, e-mail us at email@example.com, using ''Justice'' in the subject line.
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys has spent months under a high-intensity spotlight because of widespread apprehensions that partisan political tampering has infiltrated the justice system on the watch of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But still closer to home for Indian country, five of the eight fired law officers had taken a lead role in bringing justice to the reservations in their state.
All five were members of the department's Native American subcommittee; in that position, all five had championed the subcommittee's outreach to Indian country.
Thomas Heffelfinger, at present a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Best and Flanagan, chaired the subcommittee while serving as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. He said the subcommittee leadership of the five was ''not mere coincidence'' in their firing.
Heffelfinger himself was on the list of U.S. Attorneys to be fired, but the axe never fell in his case. He resigned in 2006 without yet knowing he had been targeted. The five from Indian-populous states who were dismissed are Daniel G. Bogdon, former U.S. Attorney for Nevada; Paul K. Charlton, Arizona; Margaret M. Chiara, Michigan; David C. Iglesias, New Mexico; and John McKay, Washington state western district.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairing a June 21 Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on law enforcement in Indian country, noted that Indian country can use all the help with law enforcement it can get. He gave Heffelfinger a chance to offer his view of statements before another committee of Congress on the U.S. Attorney firings.
''Monica Goodling, a former aide to Attorney General Gonzales, testified ... that you were targeted for dismissal as a U.S. Attorney because of your preoccupation with Indian issues,'' Dorgan said. ''So as I introduce you, let me just tell you that if you were focusing this attention on ... what I think are critical issues, I commend you rather than threaten you with dismissal.''
Heffelfinger responded, ''Let me comment that it's actually shameful and embarrassing for the Department of Justice, if that is in fact the official position of the department, that spending too much time on Indian issues should cause one to be fired. I took that position before the Hennepin County [Minnesota] bar association the day after Ms. Goodling testified, and received a standing ovation. So I was confident that whatever her views are and whatever the views are of the Department of Justice that may have supported her on that issue, it is not shared by the people of the United States.''
Dorgan on follow-up added, ''These problems have existed over different administrations, over a long period of time, but when I hear someone come to the Congress to say that a U.S. Attorney was threatened to be fired, or was on the list to be fired, because he or she spent too much time working on Native American issues, I worry about that. And I notice that I believe either four of the eight, or five of the eight who were in fact replaced, were on the [sub]committee ... that you were on dealing with Native Americans. Is that truly coincidence? If what the testimony said is they worried about you because you spent too much time worrying about law enforcement issues on Indian reservations, do you think, do you have any speculation about whether some who did get fired lost their jobs because of that?''
Heffelfinger stated the facts instead.
''It is true that five of the eight who were fired, including Margaret Chiara who replaced me as chair, were on the Native American issues subcommittee. But more importantly, they were actually leaders on that committee. One of the reasons that we did spend a lot of time on Native American issues while I chaired it, is that we take, we took the consultation [with tribes, pursuant a presidential executive order] requirement very seriously. And all of our meetings but one - the organizational meeting - were on Indian reservations. ... Four of the five were hosted by four of those people who were fired. Iglesias, Charlton, McKay and Bogdon. And it is also true that Native American issues are viewed within the Department of Justice as, quote, local issues. And where there is a conflict between local issues and issues that are considered more of a national priority, there is a disagreement between main Justice and the field. And I can tell you that all of those five people were zealous advocates in their own districts for improving public safety in Indian country, and improving Indian country's role in our broader homeland security infrastructure.''
''I think the word you use is appropriate,'' Dorgan summed up. ''I think this is shameful. If in fact any, in any administration or Justice Department, this spending time being critical of and threatening to fire U.S. Attorneys because they are spending substantial amounts of time dealing with some of the most gripping, difficult law enforcement issues we face in this country, crimes committed against a population that is increasingly victimized, shame on those people who believe that it is not appropriate to spend substantial amounts of time on that.''
After the hearing, Heffelfinger said ''vote caging'' had not been an issue in at least the five U.S. Attorney firings. The phrase surfaced in Goodling's testimony. It refers to the practice of confirming voter addresses by certified mail; in the case of returns, the voter can be challenged at the polls or in absentee ballot-counting. The Internet and blogosphere abound with assertions of ''vote caging'' deployed in Democratic neighborhoods by Republican political operatives. It is not illegal unless it targets populations by race or in a discriminatory manner. Though the public record to date appears devoid of documentary proof that Indian country has ever been a target of vote caging (the phrase comes from the old postal practice of segregating mail by ZIP code in wire cages), Indian country fits the profile of neighborhoods allegedly targeted in past elections: minority, low-income, largely Democratic. But Heffelfinger said that because he hadn't heard the phrase before a reporter used it, it obviously wasn't an issue in the firing of the U.S. Attorneys on his subcommittee at Justice.