WASHINGTON -- Nearly three years ago, career federal prosecutor Charles LaBella became a hero for Republicans, martyred by the Clinton administration's politicized Justice Department. Because he sought independent prosecution of Clinton-Gore campaign abuses, LaBella was denied promotion to be U.S. attorney in San Diego. But now that Republicans are in power, why has he not been named to the post he still wants to fill?
His new Republican critics reply that LaBella is not a "team player" -- precisely the unfair description of him by Democrats working for President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno. The real answer is petty backstage politics by White House and Senate staffers who want to keep out LaBella and put in one of their own.
More than an injustice to a valued public servant is at stake. The anti-LaBella cabal threatens plans for President Bush to win approval of California federal judges in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Maneuvering over nomination of U.S. attorneys normally does not engage George W. Bush personally, but he might consider intervening for Chuck LaBella before it is too late.
In 1999, crack prosecutor LaBella was aggressively probing 1996 Clinton-Gore abuses as head of Justice's Washington-based campaign finance task force. He was suddenly transferred back to San Diego with assurances he soon would become U.S. attorney there, a particularly important post because of its proximity to the Mexican border. When word leaked that LaBella had urged Reno to name an independent counsel to investigate Clinton, the president instead named somebody else as U.S. attorney. LaBella was in limbo. Unable either to go back to Washington or stay in San Diego, he ended 17 years of public service.
The injustice appeared sure to be redressed by the Republican takeover in 2001. Los Angeles venture capitalist Gerald Parsky, Bush's main man in California, was assigned the task of getting the state's two strong-minded Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to approve the president's California judgeships. LaBella was a test case, and Parsky won the senators' agreement.
So, the recommendation for U.S. attorney in San Diego dispatched to Washington by Parsky contained just one name: LaBella. That report was rocketed back across the continent by White House legal aide Brad Berenson with a request for more names. Parsky added two more (both women), but stressed that LaBella was still first choice.
White House staffers, uninterested in the women, really wanted Jeff Taylor -- a Justice Department lawyer who has been working in the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch. Kyle Sampson, a former Hatch aide who now works in the White House, along with Berenson has kept the LaBella nomination from getting to the president's desk.
Hatch himself, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, denied to me that he is supporting Taylor or blocking LaBella. But he has told others that Justice Department professional staffers report that LaBella is not a team player. Hatch has also suggested in private that a solution might be making LaBella the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, perhaps on the theory that team players are less needed there.
The senator was singing a different tune March 12, 1999, when he chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing. Attorney General Reno was being castigated by Sen. Arlen Specter for LaBella's treatment. "I do share Sen. Specter's concerns," said Hatch, adding: "I think people like Chuck LaBella are one of the reasons why the Justice Department has such a good reputation."
Ironically, fervent House Republican investigators eager to nail Reno and Justice's Clinton defenders were irritated because LaBella would not join the crusade. In an off-the-record conversation with me after he resigned, LaBella refused to criticize his former colleagues or his former boss.
LaBella's supporters in California fear another name is moving through the secret bureaucratic process and soon will be unveiled as a fait accompli. Imagine Sen. Feinstein's vexation. Having accepted LaBella and sold him to Sen. Boxer, how would she react to a White House veto? Gerry Parsky's carefully wrought plan to win Senate confirmation of a batch of new lifetime district judges, conservative but acceptable to California's Democratic senators, would be a shambles.