A CLINTONIAN TRANSITION
President-elect Barack Obama has put in charge of Department of Justice transition a leading figure in the 2001 Clinton inauguration day pardon scandal, as well as a leading lawyer for NARAL and the chief of staff for Attorney General Janet Reno, all of whom took lead roles in the Clinton administration.
"We aren't vetting people, in part because some of the people we thought might fill the transition oversight teams had other issues," complains an outside adviser to the Obama transition team, who because he is a corporate government affairs professional cannot actively participate in the transition operation. "Some of the guys who were seeking transition jobs were just scary."
So the fallback is a number of old Clinton hands, many of whom were caught in embarrassing ethical breaches during their time in government.
Exhibit A: Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas. Currently a partner at O'Melveny & Myers, he served as U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California from 1998-2001. Mayorkas gained notoriety for his advocacy as U.S. Attorney for the pardon of convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali. Vignali's father, Horacio, paid out almost a quarter million dollars to various California officials, as well as to Clinton brother-in-law Hugh Rodham, to gain the pardon for his son.
Mayorkas supported the pardon of man whose family was rumored to be -- going back to the 1970s -- smuggling heroin and cocaine into the United States, activities that Mayorkas theoretically would have been prosecuting as U.S. Attorney at the time of his attempts to get Vignali released from prison.
Mayorkas' activities were documented in a scathing congressional investigation of what came to be known as "pardongate," released by the House Government Oversight Committee. The report cited DEA investigations regarding the Vignali family's activities: "These [drug smuggling] charges have never been formally made in court, or substantiated by physical evidence. However, the mere existence of such allegations should have precluded senior law enforcement and political officials from supporting a commutation for Carlos Vignali on the strength of his father's reputation. However, it appears that no one checked with the DEA prior to granting the commutation."
The report concluded that the White House gave "great weight" to the input of individuals like Mayorkas for the pardon.
Mayorkas is believed to be a close ally to former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, who is a leading candidate to become Attorney General in the Obama administration. Holder is believed to have pressed Obama to put Mayorkas in his current transition position.
"We didn't know about his role in Pardongate," says a current Obama aide working on the transition. "Holder never told us. Alejandro came highly recommended; many of us knew him or of him."
Mayorkas highlights the challenge the Obama campaign is having in bringing in experienced hands to the transition and administration.
"We either have Clinton holdovers or folks from the campaign, but honestly, a lot of the people from the campaign aren't the types you want being the face of the new administration right now," says the outside adviser to the campaign. "The people coming to me looking for jobs aren't people I'd hire to work in the White House or at a senior level for a cabinet office. I don't know that they could pass a basic security clearance, let alone a full national security vetting. So that's why you're seeing all these Clinton re-treads. That, and these are folks who have been waiting eight years to get back in."
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THIS
On Saturday, Valerie Jarrett, longtime friend and consigliere to Barack and Michelle Obama, was named a senior adviser and assistant to the president for intergovernment relations and public liaison. In that capacity, Jarrett will not only fill the role once held by Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, but will, according to sources, take on the added task of helping direct the 501(c)(4), the Obama/Biden Transition Project, which will be renamed once the transition process is concluded in early 2009.
"The 'Project' is going to be critical to keeping us on a campaign footing even when we are in power," explains an Obama fundraiser, who has been tasked with raising money for the nonprofit entity. "Jarrett will be able to use it for issues-advocacy advertising, underwriting research programs, all kinds of things, and the best part is that companies that want to help us won't have to be identified for their support."
Jarrett's name has been mentioned for other jobs in an Obama administration, but some believe the prospect of an ugly confirmation process, given her background in Chicago politics and low-income housing projects that included work with ACORN, dissuaded Obama and Jarrett from going that route.
"She's best friends with Michelle and best friends with Barack, and she'll have the office down the hall from both of them," says the fundraiser. "You can't get more powerful than that."
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