November 9, 2006 | TCS Daily

Speaker Pelosi’s Impending Intelligence Failure

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is in line to make history as the first female Speaker — and second in line of succession for the presidency — when the new Congress convenes in January. As with any election, a wide variety of issues factored into the dynamics of this year's midterms. For us, however, the just-concluded campaign, like every federal election, was fundamentally about national security. The federal government's principal task is providing for the defense of the nation, without which justice, welfare, and all the other blessings of liberty enjoyed inside the various states are, at best, aspirations.

With majority status in the “people's house” comes a share in responsibility for the security of the Republic. This is why we are so concerned about a shadow which darkens presumptive Speaker Pelosi's triumphant morning, a shadow which will only grow longer if she allows it to begin appearing prominently in the media coverage of the global war on terrorism, metastasizing into her first “intelligence failure” even before she takes the gavel from outgoing Speaker Hastert. That is the shadow of Alcee Lamar Hastings, the reelected Democratic Representative from Florida's 23rd District.

Mr. Hastings was, in the outgoing 109th Congress, the second-ranked Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But the Washington Post's Charles Babington first reported more than a year ago, in a story that has never been denied (indeed, it has been confirmed in the congressman's hometown newspaper, the Miami Herald) that Ms. Pelosi plans to replace the committee's current ranking Democrat, California Representative Jane Harman, with Mr. Hastings who would be installed as committee chairman when the 110th Congress begins. The move would be a payback to the Congressional Black Caucus, to whose support Pelosi owes her election as Minority Leader and whose members she angered by picking Ms. Harman to be ranking member over Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop in 2003. The incoming Speaker must also mollify the Black Caucus for having pushed Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson (he of the frozen cash) off the Ways and Means Committee.

We have difficulty accepting that Mr. Hastings has been allowed by Ms. Pelosi to venture anywhere near national security matters, much less onto a field as vital as the Intelligence Committee, which exercises oversight of organizations ranging from Central Intelligence Agency to the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Department, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. That Mr. Hastings is employed by the United States of America, and is not a guest a federal penitentiary, is itself cause for wonder.

Mr. Hastings's own website says this about his pre-Congressional background: “Known to many as 'Judge,' Congressman Hastings has distinguished himself as an attorney, civil rights activist, judge, and now Member of Congress. Appointed by President Carter in 1979, he became the first African-American Federal Judge in the state of Florida, and served in that position for ten years.”

What this autobiography omits are the reasons Hastings' judicial tenure, normally a life appointment, was cut short after only a decade. Barely two years into office, “Judge” Hastings accepted a $150,000 bribe in exchange for giving a lenient sentence to two swindlers, then lied in subsequent sworn testimony about the incident. The case involved two brothers, Frank and Thomas Romano, who had been convicted in 1980 on 21 counts of racketeering. Together with attorney William Borders Jr., Hastings, who presided over the Romanos' case, hatched a plot to solicit a bribe from the brothers. In exchange for a $150,000 cash payment to him, Hastings would return some $845,000 of their $1.2 million in seized assets after they served their three-year jail terms.

Taped conversations between Hastings and Borders confirmed that the judge was a party to the plot. Hastings was also criminally prosecuted for bribery, but his accomplice Borders went to prison rather than testify against him. Hastings was acquitted thanks to Borders' silence. [Borders was then pardoned by President Clinton, confirming the wisdom of his refusal to testify. In a remarkable display of chutzpah, Borders then applied for reinstatement to the District of Columbia Bar, claiming that Clinton's federal pardon eliminated his local disbarment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit did not agree, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. To former D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy, Borders' case had a spiritual quality to it. “Being pardoned by the president is like being pardoned by Jesus,” Fauntroy sermonized. Thankfully, the Supremes evidently disagreed with this “theology.”]

“Be assured that I'm going to be a judge for life,” Mr. Hastings told reporters in 1983 after his acquittal. But the arguments that swayed a Miami jury did not sway the Congress. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives impeached Hastings for bribery and perjury by a lopsided vote of 413 to 3. Then the Democrat-controlled Senate convicted him on eight articles of impeachment by well over the required two-thirds majority in 1989. Thus Mr. Hastings became only the sixth judge in the history of our Republic (and only the third in the 20th Century) to be removed by Congress. He was, and is, an utter disgrace to the nation and to the legal profession. Among those voting to impeach him were Ms. Pelosi herself, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip who is likely to become the new House majority leader, and Mr. Hastings' fellow African-American Congressman, Michigan's John Conyers, who took pains to deny that race had anything to do with the removal of the bribe-taking jurist.

Article I, section 3, clause 7, of the Constitution reads as follows:

“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States….”

Alas, in its vote convicting and removing Hastings, the Senate neglected to include language barring him from seeking future office. Hastings was promptly elected to Congress in 1992 as the representative of a new, specially-designed majority-black district.

Since shamelessly taking his seat in the very House that overwhelmingly impeached him, Congressman Hastings has not appeared chastened by his scandal-plagued past. Reports circulate that the “Judge” is the subject of speculation about a conflict of interest. At issue this time is the fact that Hastings added to his Congressional payroll one Patricia Williams, described as a “close personal friend” and former attorney. Williams represented the then-judge at his bribery trial and impeachment hearings, but was herself disbarred in June 1992 for misuse of clients' funds. Mr. Hastings is said to owe Mr. Williams substantial lawyer's fees for her services in the eighties—over $500,000 according to some estimates—and some see his decision to make her a staff assistant as a form of debt-settling at the public's expense. Ms. Williams' annual salary as “staff assistant” is reported to be an impressive $129,000. Here are two other publicly reported annual salaries from Mr. Hastings' office which are quite telling: Vanessa Griddine, staff assistant (scheduler), $71,000; Fred Turner, chief of staff: $67,200.

Ms. Griddine must be one heck of a scheduler, as she earns nearly four thousand dollars a year more than Mr. Turner, the Congressman's chief of staff. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reports that Ms. Griddine, not Mr. Turner, recently accompanied Hastings on a trip to Portugal and Spain—earlier she had traveled with him to Brussels, at a cost to taxpayers of over $14,000. Doubtless her presence is constantly required to help arrange last-minute scheduling.

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported this past June that Hastings is one of a dozen chronic absentees in the current Congress—which raises questions about Ms. Griddine's scheduling acumen. The American Policy Center (APC), a conservative group, has called attention to the fact that, in recent years, Hastings has been under investigation for other ethics violations by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The APC reports that Hastings has also been investigated by the Florida Elections Commission and the Federal Election Commission for various charges of impropriety. Political Money Line, a watchdog group that tracks money in national politics, points out that Hastings ranks second among all American lawmakers in the number of taxpayer-funded trips he has taken since 1994, at a price tag of over $152,000 (not counting expenses incurred by his accompanying “assistants”). Many of those trips were taken on behalf of the OSCE to “monitor elections.” The irony of one of Congress's most corrupt members being tasked to monitor electoral fraud should presumably shock even Hastings' original nominator, election supervisor par excellence Jimmy Carter.

Back to the present. The disgraced judge-cum-legislator's record on national security—the most basic criterion for leading the intelligence committee at any time, much less in the midst of a war on terror—has not been reassuring. In the 109th Congress alone, Mr. Hastings voted consistently against key counterterrorism tools, including the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act, the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Resolution, and the USA PATRIOT and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act. He has been an opponent of the trial by military commissions of unlawful terrorist combatants as well as border control, NSA communications intercepts, and terrorist financing tracking measures.

Mr. Hastings' dubious record contrasts greatly with that of the centrist Ms. Harman. While highly critical at times of the Bush administration's conduct of intelligence and counterterrorism operations, Ms. Harman has displayed a keen understanding of intelligence issues, and has introduced quite sensible legislation on national security concerns, including government-wide security clearances and enhanced seaport security.

With the serious international security challenges faced by Americans, the last thing we need is more bitter partisanship. Nancy Pelosi is set to make history as our first female Speaker. But what history will record of her speakership, should she choose to vault Mr. Hastings over Ms. Harman, is that her legacy had precious little to do with providing for the common defense of the Republic, and too much to do with shameless pandering.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. Both are adjunct fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.