Is Phila. Probe Racially, Politically Tainted?

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Besides Philadelphia, cities like Detroit, Newark, Denver, and Atlanta have seen minority mayors and federal corruption probes seemingly timed to inflict maximum political damage, the Philadelphia Inquirer says.

The paper says that the discovery of an FBI bug in Mayor John Street’s office has raised questions of a possibly historical bias in the Justice Department and whether a probe seemingly instigated under a Republican administration and Attorney General John Ashcroft could be racially or politically motivated.

The Inquirer concludes that political targeting is more likely to be wished for than acted upon by top Justice officials, who are political appointees. Investigations are usually initiated by career prosecutors. “It takes a whole lot to reach down into the [Justice Department] bureaucracy and make them do anything like this,” said Suzanne R. Garment, a lawyer who has written about political corruption.

Political analyst Larry Sabato of Virgina said his research had not found a partisan agenda. “The prosecutors are remarkably apolitical, once you get below the top level,” he said. “The professional prosecutors think there are a lot of crooks in public office.”

Black mayors like Marion Barry (District of Columbia), Sharpe James (Newark), Coleman Young (Detroit), and Wellington Webb (Denver), are cited as political and racial targets, but the high-profile prosecutions of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards; former Providence, R.I., Mayor Buddy Cianci; and former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli involved whites.

Justice Department guidelines for undercover operations established a committee, which vets all FBI requests for wiretaps, listening devices, and other undercover operations. Typically, the committee includes FBI agents, one or two Justice Department lawyers, and perhaps assistant U.S. attorneys or even a prosecutor from the locality of the investigation. “All potential sensitivities are discussed,” said one former fedeal official who served on several such committees.

An academic analysis suggests that federal corruption targets were sometimes chosen for their race or political affiliation. In “Political Corruption in the American States,” Thomas Schlesinger and Kenneth J. Meier examined federal law-enforcement prosecutions over nearly two decades. Between 1986 and 1995, they found that under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush, states that had more black elected officials and that were under Democratic control had a higher rate of prosecutions. In the first years of the Clinton administration, 1993-95, there was no significant relationship between racial and party factors and the level of prosecutions, they found.


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