WASHINGTON – Attorney General Michael Mukasey vowed anew Thursday to crack down on crooked politicians and public officials, dismissing critics who accuse the Justice Department of letting partisan loyalties interfere with corruption cases.
Mukasey's comments came hours after prosecutors charged Puerto Rico's Democratic-leaning governor in a campaign finance probe that began more than two years ago.
Additionally, Mukasey said that a multibillion-dollar overseas contracting loophole that was quietly slipped into Justice Department plans to protect taxpayers' money "shouldn't happen."
All were part of the attorney general's rhetorical assault on public corruption, which he called one of his top priorities.
"It's often in the interest of someone to charge politicization whenever a prominent public figure is investigated or prosecuted," Mukasey said during a noontime speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "I find it notable that they make these accusations in the media, rather than before a court."
Earlier, during an interview with The Associated Press, Mukasey said corruption has "a cost beyond dollars and cents — it undermines the whole idea of government."
Because of corruption, Mukasey said, "people can't have confidence that government's being done honestly."
The Justice Department has brought numerous corruption cases over the last several years targeting Democrats and Republicans alike. In 2006, the latest data available, Justice prosecutors charged nearly 1,200 federal, state and local government employees in public integrity cases — a 20 percent increase from a decade ago.
During his speech, Mukasey pointedly spoke of charges brought against two former Republican congressmen: Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio. He did not mention charges brought hours earlier against Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, who faces 19 counts in a campaign finance probe. Twelve others associated with Acevedo's Popular Democratic Party also were indicted Thursday.
Other high-profile lawmakers facing Justice Department charges include Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., in a land scam case, and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., for allegedly taking bribes. Also under scrutiny by the FBI or congressional investigators are at least eight current House and Senate lawmakers. Democrat Eliot Spitzer resigned as New York's governor earlier this month after a federal wiretap caught him arranging trysts with a prostitute.
Part of the Justice crackdown on corruption focuses on waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars spent on pricey government contracts. To that end, Mukasey told AP that the Justice Department is actively working to have a loophole exempting overseas contracts stripped from tough new rules to force private companies to report internal evidence of fraud.
The Bush administration added the loophole after the rule was first proposed by the Justice Department.
"Our position is it shouldn't happen," Mukasey said. "My understanding is we are doing whatever we can do at this point to show that we are opposed to it."
Mukasey took over the Justice Department in November following nearly a year of turmoil there over whether nine U.S. attorneys and career prosecutors were hired or fired because of their politics. The scandal ultimately led to the resignation of the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, and Mukasey has been intent since then on rebuilding the Justice Department's image as fair and independent.
He also sought to quell suspicions over whether the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles meant to disband that office's cadre of public integrity prosecutors when he reassigned them to other units. Mukasey described the move as little more than an office restructuring.
"To take that as a signal that the Central District of California is out of the public corruption business I think is absurd," Mukasey said. "I didn't read it that way and ... that's not the life truth of it."