Return of the Independent Counsel?

Strange end to the Richardson investigation

Once upon a time, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was President Obama's first choice to be commerce secretary. After being nominated in December, he abruptly withdrew a month later when news broke that the there was a federal probe into charges of pay-to-play involving New Mexico officials and companies bidding on state contracts. 

Richardson said that he did nothing wrong, but thought it appropriate to take his name out of consideration rather than prove a distraction (Obama then went on to pick Republican Sen. Judd Gregg for the post; he accepted then withdrew when he realized he was, well, a Republican; third time was the charm with the selection of the currently-serving Gary Locke).

Well, now, all of a sudden, comes word that -- POOF! -- Richardson and his staff are in the clear! No one in his office will be facing any indictments. Conveniently enough, this was announced while the governor happens to be on a trade mission to Cuba -- so he's unavailable for comment.   

What makes the news even more mysterious is that it was not a case that the convened grand jury chose not to return any charges.  No, rather: 

The decision not to pursue indictments was made by top Justice Department officials, according to a person familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified because federal officials had not disclosed results of the probe.

"It's over. There's nothing. It was killed in Washington," the person told The Associated Press. 

Now, there's an interesting use of language -- "top Justice Department officials." Could it be that political-appointee types,  not career "civil servant" prosecutors, "killed" the investigation? Hmmm...

So, the appointees of a Democratic president -- perhaps including the attorney general himself -- chose not to go forward with the prosecution of a Democratic governor and/or his staff. Double hmmm...

In the past, such apparent conflicts of interest would create the circumstances for an independent counsel.  Of course, both parties allowed the IC law to expire after the perceived excesses of people like Lawrence Walsh (who pursued Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush over Iran-contra) and Ken Starr (who investigated Bill Clinton from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky). 

It goes without saying that, had Richardson taken the Department of Commerce job, it would have been impossible for the Justice Department to just drop the investigation without every political reporter in Washington swooping in like vultures to ask questions.  But, with Richardson traveling, the summer doldrums setting in -- and all political media looking askance at Hyannisport and Boston -- the timing is perfect. 

Once everyone starts noticing exactly what happened this week, will the peculiar "Richardson Exoneration" trigger new calls for some sort of outside investigator that would be free of political influence? 

Stay tuned. 

New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots. Follow him on Twitter.

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