Holder’s announcement on Christmas Eve that he was appointing Robin Ashton as the new head of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) went virtually unnoticed in the press, other than a highly complimentary article in the Washington Post.
That’s unfortunate, considering how important this position is. OPR investigates ethics violations by Justice Department lawyers. It should be headed by someone who does not place partisanship above the law, and who has the highest ethical standards and a sterling reputation. Robin Ashton does not fit that bill. Indeed, Ashton’s antics at DOJ have often been so petty and juvenile that she should be disqualified from serving in any career leadership position at Justice, much less the one responsible for enforcing ethical standards.
Why, given the well-deserved black eye that OPR has suffered over the last year for its politically tilted investigations, would Holder appoint a hyper-Democratic loyalist such as Ashton to run the office? Perhaps because the über-political Holder wants to solidify the liberal bias that already pervades OPR and thereby ensure that the political machinations of his minions are glossed over (if not outright ignored). . .
Ashton’s bad reputation goes beyond partisan grievance. Two former directors of EOUSA were interviewed in 2006 by the House Judiciary Committee during its investigation of the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. According to someone familiar with the entire transcripts of those interviews (which are not public), the directors were scathing in their criticism. Ashton reportedly would go through the desk of one former director, Mary Beth Buchanan, when she was out of the office, rifling through confidential files and documents. Ashton was also characterized by former colleagues as completely untrustworthy — someone who treated subordinates like chattel while she did everything possible to ingratiate herself with her bosses, often claiming credit for work that others had done. This sounds more like the behavior of a less-than-stellar high-school student than that of a DOJ lawyer.
Ashton’s political loyalties were demonstrated emphatically by her request to be detailed to the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, one of the fiercest and most partisan liberal Democrats in the Senate. The Justice Department acquiesced to Ashton’s request and actually paid her salary while she worked in Leahy’s office, helping him attack the Bush administration’s Justice Department. As one Justice Department lawyer who worked with Ashton told me, “You don’t do a detail with Patrick Leahy if you’re not a committed, solid Democrat whose political loyalty Leahy would never question.” . .
“Given her partisan instincts and the loyalty she feels to the current attorney general,” one former DOJ lawyer told me, “there is no way that Robin Ashton will allow any report to come out that criticizes Eric Holder or his deputies.” Moreover, the lawyers in OPR and the IG’s office know that from a standpoint of professional advancement within Justice, their own careers would suffer if they came out with such a report.
To add insult to injury, Attorney General Holder, in an interview in the New York Times, improperly (and unprofessionally) commented on the open investigation of the New Black Panther Party case, saying, “There is no there there.” He also called the investigation of the hostility to racially neutral enforcement of the law in the Civil Rights Division a “made-up controversy.” Thus, the lawyers in OPR have been told by their attorney general what their conclusions should be in these investigations — never mind what facts they uncover.
Just to reinforce the message that Ashton will have a free hand to cover up the department’s wrongdoing, President Obama has given a recess appointment to Holder friend and administration loyalist James Cole to be the deputy attorney general, the number-two slot at Justice. It is Cole’s office that would review Ashton’s report on the results of OPR’s investigation into the Civil Rights Division.
The final element of the fix is that on January 18, Holder announced he was forming a new “Professional Misconduct Review Unit” that will be responsible for “all disciplinary and state-bar referral actions relating to OPR findings of professional misconduct.” In other words, even in the unlikely event that OPR finds misconduct, this new unit will decide whether to notify state bar authorities of OPR’s report. And whom did Holder put in charge of the new unit? Why, his loyal former chief of staff (and Obama campaign contributor) Kevin Ohlson.