Thursday evening Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who chairs the House Government Oversight committee, sent the Attorney General a letter asking for all kinds of records concerning the Bush Administration's handling of a recent federal case against the tobacco industry. The letter followed a Thursday morning front-page story in the Washington Post , which claimed top political appointees in the Justice Department had pressured the lead prosecutor in a recent federal case claiming the tobacco industry had conspired to lie to U.S. smokers, forcing her to ease off on cigarette-making executives and their companies. The prosecutor, Sharon Eubanks, said the interference had undermined her ability to "zealously represent the interests of the American public." (The U.S. District judge ruled against the companies, but rejected the monetary penalties requested by the government, and the case is currently being appealed.)
After a proper enough start to the letter "Dear Mr. Attorney General, The Oversight Committee requests information..." Waxman got down to brass tacks, demanding: "All communications between the White House and the Department of Justice related to the Department's suit against the tobacco industry; All notes, in any form, kept by political appointees at the Department related to White House involvement in the tobacco litigation; An accounting of all contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice related to the tobacco litigation..." And so on. A spokesperson for the White House told TIME that "this matter was already investigated by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and was settled," referring to a previous internal probe that concluded there was no political meddling.
Waxman has a long history criticizing the tobacco industry. He ran the 1994 hearings where top cigarette makers serially denied any knowledge that smoking could be addictive or cause disease. He then organized further hearings that proved some of their companies had suppressed research showing both things. He has sponsored numerous bills regulating tobacco use. And he has issued several letters voicing concern about the case Eubanks was prosecuting.
Of course until recently Waxman was in the powerless minority in the House. Now, his letter arrives at the Attorney General's desk with the implicit force of subpoena power behind it. A Government Oversight committee staffer says issuing a subpoena "hasn't been discussed yet," and that Waxman views it as "a last resort."
Whatever the outcome of Waxman's new attack on Gonzales and Bush, another scandal is exactly what the old Texas friends didn't need right now. Granted, the embattled Attorney General has bucked the beltway odds-makers, leveraging solid support from Bush to hang onto his job in the face of Democratic accusations about the firing of eight attorneys general late last year. Bush, in turn, has stood firm before the looming threat of Congressional subpoenas for his top advisor, Karl Rove, in a battle over presidential power. But Hill Republicans are getting tired of political trouble from Justice and the White House. "What the heck is going on over there?" asked one frustrated senior Republican aide. "It's something new every day." Bush can stand by Gonzales for a while, but the way things are going on Capitol Hill, he may soon be the AG's only friend in Washington.