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Is Eric Holder being candid about his relationship with Gov. Blagojevich?

Barack Obama has had his share of embarrassments over his presidential appointments. The selection of Bill Richardson and the failure to notify key Senators about the selection of Leon Panetta come to mind.

But, in practical terms, it is the appointment of Eric Holder as Attorney General that seems to face the rockiest road. In particular, Holder is in for tough questioning over some of the presidential pardons he steered through the Justice Department for President Clinton.

Holder may well be making his road even rockier by being less than forthcoming with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his relationship, as a partner at Covington & Burling, with the corrupt governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich.

That relationship was announced by Blago himself at a press conference on March 24, 2004. The Illinois Gaming Board had voted, controversially, to approve a license for a casino in Rosemont, Illinois. In response to the controversy, which included allegations of corruption, Gov. Blagojevich called for a full, independent investigation. He announced at the March 24 press conference that Eric Holder would conduct that investigation.

But in his initial response to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee in connection with his nomination to be Attorney General, Holder did not mention either the press conference with Blagojevich or the representation announced at that conference. Arlen Specter thus sought clarification of the omission.

In his response, Holder may well have dug himself a deeper hole. He begins by conceding that he should have disclosed the press conference and stating that this was an oversight. So far, so good. But then he asserts: “I never performed substantive work on the matter” of “investigat[ing] issues relating to the Illinois Gaming Board.” He also claims that the “engagement” announced by Blagojevich at the press conference “never materialized.”

Holder’s claim that he never performed substantive work on the Gaming Board investigation does not appear to be accurate. In response to a FOIA request, the Office of the Governor of Illinois has produced a letter of April 2, 2004 from Holder (on Covington & Burling letter head) to the Chairman of the Illinois Gaming Board. The letter begins by stating, “As you know, Governor Blagojevich has appointed me to investigate issues relating to gaming in the Village of Rosemont, Illinois.” After informing the Gaming Board Chairman that “the first stage of the investigation will fous on reviewing documents,” Holder proceeds to request the production of ten categories of documents. Among them are the following:

(1) all reports prepared by the Board’s staff concerning recommendations for the tenth licencse;

(2) all FBI reports provided to the Board concerning alleged ties between investors in the [XXXXXX] Casino and organized crime;

(3) all FBI reports provided to the Board concerning alleged ties between the Village of Rosemont (or its officials) and organized crime. . .;

(9) all reports provided to the Board by [YYYYYY], Inc. relating to the tenth casino license. . . .

This request for the production of documents relating to the circumstances possibly surrounding the issuance of the gaming license would seem to constitute “substantive work” on the Gaming Board investigation. Indeed, substantive work would have been required just to formulate a targeted request with this level of specificity.

Holder’s claim that the engagement announced by Gov. Blagojevich in March 2004 “never materialized” is also difficult to reconcile with the letter Holder sent in early April of that year. It is true that, in May, the Illinois cancelled Holder’s investigation because its Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, could not agree with Covington & Burling on the scope of a conflict-of-interest waiver (Covington & Burling wanted Illinois to agree that the firm could sue the state in the future). Nonetheless, it seems that the engagement “materialized” by no later than April 2, before the parties backed out, when Holder told the Gaming Board he had been appointed to conduct the investigation, and proceeded to request the production of documents for that purpose.

It’s not clear to me why, in light of this record, Holder would deny having performed substantive work on behalf of Blago for a brief period of time way back in 2004. The Governor was not in apparent legal difficulty at the time. Perhaps Holder is simply over-reacting to Blago’s current difficulties, as the Senate Democrats did in connection with the appointment of Roland Burris.

But regardless of the explanation, Senator Specter is never kind to people he thinks have made false or misleading statements to him. Holder may now have placed himself in that category.

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