Rove Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry, Part Three

Fred Barnes’ Aug. 20 cover story in the Weekly Standard proclaims White House senior counselor Karl Rove to be “The Impresario” of the Bush administration. According to Barnes, Rove is

not only the most influential adviser to Bush, but one of the most powerful presidential aides since the advent of the modern White House under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. … David Keene of the American Conservative Union says Rove is the “central point” in an otherwise compartmentalized White House. Norquist calls him the “Grand Central Station where everything switches through.” Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute, an ally of Sen. John McCain and critic of Bush, says Rove is “perceived as the nerve center of the administration.” Roy Blunt of Missouri, the deputy GOP whip and Rove’s chief contact in the House, says of him: “He’s everywhere.”

Barnes makes the obvious point that Rove’s importance to Bush provides Democrats like Henry Waxman with a partisan motive to push for an investigation of Rove’s meeting with Intel executives about a merger, subsequently approved, that Intel sought at a time when Rove owned more than $100,000 in Intel stock. But it is equally true that Rove’s importance to Bush puts Rove on shaky legal ground when White House counsel Alberto Gonzales tries to shrug off Rove’s Intel meeting and others like it. As Chatterbox noted in an earlier item, Section 402[b]4 of Title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations states that a government employee may not involve himself in a matter in which he has a financial interest even if his participation is “not determinative of the outcome of a particular matter. … A finding of substantiality should be based not only on the effort devoted to a matter, but also on the importance of the effort [italics Chatterbox’s].” If Barnes is correct that Rove is Bush’s capo di tutti capi–and Barnes is rarely wrong about such things–then Rove’s mere decision to meet with the Intel executives would have sent ripples throughout the Bush administration.

Chatterbox doesn’t believe Rove should be hounded from office for being careless about ethical rules. He does, however, think some minimal effort should be made to demonstrate that, in the Bush White House, ethical rules still exist. The best way to achieve this would be to slap Rove with a fine. Earlier, Chatterbox noted that Anthony Lake, the national security adviser in the Clinton White House, was forced in 1997 to pay a $5,000 fine for failing to sell off energy stocks that related only in a theoretical way to Lake’s official duties. Apparently, a similar fate befell Lake’s successor, Sandy Berger. In a July 17 letter to White House counsel Gonzales, Waxman points out that in both instances, Gonzales’ predecessor, Abner Mikva, referred the matter to the Justice Department, even though there were no allegations of any meetings or discussions with energy company executives. Gonzales’ response, in an Aug. 10 letter to Waxman (click here  to read it), merits a careful reading:

[T]he Sandy Berger and Tony Lake cases you cite are not analogous to Mr. Rove’s situation. … In the Factual Stipulations filed with their Settlement Agreements, both Mr. Berger and Mr. Lake formally admitted that they had in fact “personally and substantially participated” in one or more “particular matters” that may have had a “direct and predictable effect” on the companies in which they held an interest. … In addition, both Mr. Berger and Mr. Lake violated express instructions from the White House Counsel to sell their stockholdings. In Mr. Berger’s case, he retained his shares for more than 15 months after the Counsel’s Office had instructed him to divest. In Mr. Lake’s case, he retained his shares for more than 20 months after receiving such instruction. By contrast, Mr. Rove followed the advice he received from transition counsel and White House Counsel. …

Gonzales is arguing that Berger and Lake were naughtier than Rove was. But a more plausible conclusion is that Berger and Lake were less willing than Rove to stonewall. Clinton’s NSC chiefs both pled guilty and paid the fine; Rove refuses to do so. In Berger and Lake’s cases, stonewalling would have been more difficult, since the White House had made referrals to the Justice Department. In Rove’s case, the White House has encouraged Rove to stonewall by refusing to make a referral to the Justice department (indeed, in his latest letter, Gonzales boldly questions whether he’d have to make such a referral even if Rove were obviously guilty). Gonzales makes much of the hectoring Berger and Lake received from the White House Counsel to sell their stocks. Nothing like that happened with Rove. But does that really make Berger and Lake more guilty? Or does it merely demonstrate that Gonzales, who’s been widely mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, doesn’t want to wreck his chances by making himself a pest to Bush’s most powerful aide?