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Scandals weighing on scales of justice

The ongoing scandal involving the U.S. attorney general’s office reminds me how often I hear from people who insist they can’t get a fair shot at justice. Politics worked against them, or money, or the clout of someone as powerful as Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Speaking of whom, after going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a four-year battle to keep files sealed, we now see why Mahony might have been so zealous.

The first look at those documents, in a lawsuit against the church, reveals that His Eminence privately warned the current pope of a priest’s criminal misconduct with “partially naked” high school boys. But prosecutors say Mahony did not report that crime. And to make matters worse, Mahony assured parishioners a few months later that the boys were “fully clothed” and that there had been no sexual activity.

I ask you, as I have many times before, to light the candles, get out the rosary beads and pray for the cardinal.

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And while you do, let’s move on to that other scandal in the news.

Have you been following this thing? The chief of the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego went after knuckle-dragging Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham and his buddies -- a defense contractor and a CIA official -- and the White House kneecapped her.

The president’s men made short work of Carol Lam, who was referred to as a “problem” in an e-mail to U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales from an underling. They gave her the word in December and showed her the door last month.

See ya.

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Lam, along with seven other regional bosses who were dumped (allegedly for poor performance), might have made the fatal mistake of letting justice get in the way of politics.

Despite winning praise in some quarters for her work against illegal immigration, a superior had suggested that she be “woodshedded” for not doing more. And was she tough enough, critics wondered, on firearms offenses? Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the U.S. attorney was axed after complaints by Republican Sen. Pete Domenici about a stalled corruption investigation involving Democrats.

It all smells so bad, even Republicans like Vincent Marella, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, are holding their noses.

“Even when the smoke clears, the appearance is terribly disruptive,” Marella said. “It undermines faith in the justice system, and then all kinds of prosecutorial decisions and all kinds of cases get drawn into question.”

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Jan Handzlik, another Republican and former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, said essentially the same thing. Prosecutors serve at the pleasure of higher-ups, he said, and politics might figure into their appointment. But once they’re in place, the only job is to uphold the law. In that regard, he said, the fired prosecutor in San Diego was no slouch.

“I can tell you Carol Lam is one of the most responsible federal prosecutors in the country and is ... well-liked in her office,” Handzlik said. “If she devoted all of her resources to prosecuting immigration cases there would be little time for anything else. U.S. attorney’s offices have limited jurisdiction and resources.”

Richard Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who happens to be a Democrat, said politically motivated prosecutorial decisions are much more common in the offices of district attorneys, who have to raise money and run for reelection. But he’s been surprised by the growing evidence that “the White House was using the Department of Justice as a political arm instead of as a department devoted only to justice.”

He added:

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“Put this together with the government’s huge penchant for secrecy, and it’s a very combustible combination.”

Tell me about it. From weapons of mass destruction to Scooter Libby to Abu Ghraib, anybody who trusts anything out of Washington -- much less their own church leaders -- should report immediately for counseling.

But when it comes to playing politics in the AG’s office, the Republicans did not invent the game.

Does the name Chuck LaBella ring a bell?

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The assistant prosecutor in San Diego was summoned to Washington in 1997 by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to lead a task force investigating campaign finance irregularities in the 1996 presidential campaign. After several indictments of Democratic fundraisers, the question was whether the LaBella probe would reach as high as Reno’s bosses -- President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- as well as the campaign of presidential candidate Bob Dole.

LaBella concluded there was enough evidence to bring in a special counsel and continue the investigation.

Poor fool. He did his job so well he lost it.

LaBella was unceremoniously shuttled back to San Diego, where he was passed over for a promotion. He came up empty again after interviewing for the top job in San Diego when President Bush took office. Republican critics, perhaps recalling LaBella’s probe of Dole, said he wasn’t a “team player.”

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“I never figured out what a team player was,” said LaBella, a political independent who now practices law in San Diego. “When I went for the interview, I told them the only team I was going to be on was with the people of the United States.”

When LaBella was passed over, Carol Lam got the job.

Lucky her.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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