Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is in a fighting mood these days.
In his recent public statements about the ongoing federal probe into himself and his wife Julie’s connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Doolittle has not only fiercely maintained his innocence, but — in what defense lawyers say is a risky move — he also has gone on the offensive against the very people who are investigating him.
Since the FBI raided his Virginia home on April 13, Doolittle has embarked on an unusually public crusade against the Justice Department for its purportedly heavy-handed tactics against him.
The California Republican even went so far as to suggest that the raid was timed to reap political benefits for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and make him look tough on Republicans.
“I do not believe it was a coincidence that the leak came a day before [Gonzales] testified to Congress on charges that his office was overly partisan in its firing of eight U.S. attorneys,” Doolittle wrote in a May 5 opinion piece for the Auburn (Calif.) Journal. “Especially considering Gonzales specifically cited his recent prosecution of Republican members of Congress to the contrary.”
In a conference call just before that with California reporters, Doolittle suggested he was not the only one subjected to suspect treatment from Justice. He pointed to alleged similar raids by the FBI on other lawmakers — a Democrat and a Republican — without revealing their identities.
Then, in an interview with a Sacramento, Calif., radio station last week, Doolittle and his wife complained about their aggressive treatment during the FBI raid on their home, describing how Julie Doolittle was “sequestered” in the kitchen during the search and required an FBI escort to go to the bathroom.
The Justice Department is probing Julie Doolittle’s ties to Abramoff. But noting that the probe has gone on for three years, Congressman Doolittle wrote in the opinion piece that the raid came after a meeting with his attorney and was an “attempt to strong-arm my wife in order to get me to admit to a crime.”
Although the fighting words might help Doolittle politically in a district where he won re-election by just 3 points in 2006, they could significantly complicate his legal strategy, and defense attorneys suggested they would not counsel their clients to attack their pursuers.
“It’s a well-worn refrain by public officials [being investigated] of both stripes, by Democrats and Republicans alike, that they’re being persecuted,” said Stan Brand, a former House counsel who has represented many Congressional clients under fire. “I don’t think you could count on one hand the number of times that was born out in litigation.”
Brand’s advice: “Save your defense for court. … At some point, you have to put your legal interests ahead of your political interests if you want to remain free.”
“Attacking the prosecutors and attacking the FBI when you’re under investigation is usually not a smart strategy, but sometimes political figures can’t help themselves from responding in a political way,” said another prominent white-collar defense lawyer who did not want to be named. “I would be surprised if Congressman Doolittle’s lawyer felt that was the right approach.”
The attorney added that political officials make “difficult” clients.
“They tend to be more concerned with the politics and appearances and communications aspect of the controversy than with the underlying legal aspects, and sometimes what’s right for one is exactly wrong for the other,” he said.
But Jensen Barber, a federal criminal defense lawyer who has represented Congressmen and staffers, argued that Doolittle’s broadside could have some legal benefits. He said that senior Justice officials such as Gonzales might even review how the search warrant was executed.
“It depends on, I believe, what your overall strategy is,” Barber contended. “If it is a shotgun approach to defeating some sort of claim of criminal malfeasance, then you do whatever you can to try to pull the rug out from under the people who are accusing you.”
Jensen added that Doolittle makes a legitimate point when he argues that the FBI’s motivations seem unclear in seizing Julie Doolittle’s iPod and cell phone, but not a file folder containing information about her work for Abramoff.
“I think they take things that would store data that might lead them somewhere else,” Barber said. “I suspect that they’re looking for more leads.”
Doolittle’s lawyer, David Barger, could not be reached for comment. But the lawmaker explained in the radio interview that he and his wife simply were “getting tired of just sitting back and letting the news of this issue leak out drip by drip to the media.”
“And in our judgment, it’s an orchestrated attempt to cause us political harm,” Doolittle continued. “So that’s why we’ve taken the unorthodox step of speaking out in this fashion.”
In the radio interview, the Congressman said he could readily identify with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who recently told The Hill newspaper the Justice Department was “running amok” in its Abramoff probe and that the government needed to “fish or cut bait.”
Furthermore, Doolittle argued that Justice was under pressure from the media, which predicted dozens of Members would be indicted in the Abramoff scandal, to “get” more Members of Congress.
“As far as meeting the media’s expectations, the Justice Department has fallen woefully short,” Doolittle argued.
The Congressman added that he was the sole remaining lawmaker with known connections to Abramoff who had not been indicted or defeated in the 2006 elections. Thus, the increased focus on his activities by Justice.
“I’m the only one that remains,” Doolittle said.