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Justice Dept. rejects request for Siegelman documents

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has rebuffed a request from House Democrats for documents related to the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman, saying the release of internal communications about specific cases would compromise the judicial system.

“Prosecution memoranda contain frank assessments of evidence and witnesses, recommendations, and evaluations of legal issues,” Brian Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, wrote to the lawmakers in a Sept. 4 letter made public Monday. “We believe that their disclosure would chill the candid internal deliberations that are essential to the discharge of our law enforcement responsibilities.”

Benczkowski also noted that the case remains under appeal.

The Democrats behind the request, including Judiciary Chairman John Conyers of Michigan and Artur Davis of Alabama, countered that the department has frequently released similar information in the past.

In a letter to outgoing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, they again questioned whether the department has something to hide.

“(W)ithout meaningful cooperation from the Department ... it will simply be impossible to make fair judgments or to allay suspicions that improper factors played a role in these and other cases,” the lawmakers wrote in a response Monday, renewing their request.

Conyers, Davis and two other Judiciary Committee members asked for the Siegelman papers in July along with documents from two other cases in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, questioning whether the prosecutions were politically motivated. The request is part of a broader Judiciary Committee inquiry into the firings of federal prosecutors and alleged political interference from the White House.

Committee staffers also have talked with Rainsville attorney Jill Simpson, a former campaign worker for Republican Gov. Bob Riley, about her claims that a campaign operative talked about White House influence over the Siegelman investigation when Riley’s narrow victory over the Democrat in 2002 was being challenged.

Simpson is scheduled to travel to Washington this week for a formal interview by committee attorneys.

In response to the document request, the Justice Department recently sent the committee several hundred pages of publicly available court pleadings. Benczkowski said the department will continue searching its records but has not found any communications regarding the cases with the White House, members of Congress or political party officials.

He also reiterated the department’s insistence that Siegelman was convicted by a jury and that his case was handled by career prosecutors without any political involvement.

The Democratic lawmakers called the response “extremely disappointing,” citing several prior cases in which the department has released internal documents. Acknowledging the sensitivity of some information, they said they were willing to compromise by reviewing some materials privately at Justice Department offices.

“The department’s ultimate claim is the kind of expansive executive privilege doctrine this administration has advanced before,” Davis said. “It cannot be that any government agency can unilaterally declare its decisions off limits to the very Congress that funds that agency and that passes the laws that agency enforces.”

Siegelman, elected in 1998, was convicted last year of bribery and other charges after serving one term as governor. He recently began serving a prison sentence of more than seven years.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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