Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Hatch Act, Gordon Smith's 2002 re-election, and 30,000 dead Coho salmon

The House investigation into the US Attorney rigging scandal and the Jack Abramoff scandal have cast some light into some of the darker corners of Gordon Smith's 2002 Senate re-election campaign.

It's a good reminder that Rove's plan to corrupt as much of the government as he could by 2008--happening largely unnoticed until a Democratic Congress finally re-established the principle of congressional oversight--was having consequences for Oregon as early as 2002:

In January 2002, at a retreat in West Virginia, Karl Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation to at least 50 managers at the Department of the Interior to discuss polling data, and emphasized the importance of getting Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican, reelected that year.

The way to get Smith reelected to another term, Rove reportedly told the Interior Department officials, would come via the agency's support of a highly controversial measure:
diverting water from the Klamath River Basin to farms in the area that were experiencing unusually dry conditions, thereby supporting the GOP's agricultural base.

Details of Rove's involvement in influencing the Interior Department to reverse its policies with regard to the Klamath River basin have been previously reported. But questions about why a political operative like Rove was influencing agricultural and environmental policy decisions, possibly in violation of the law, and whether he pressured cabinet officials to reverse policy to get Republicans reelected were raised again last month during a sworn deposition Rove's former executive assistant, Susan Ralston, gave to Congressional investigators probing Rove's role in the US attorney scandal and his and other White House officials connections with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

A transcript of Ralston's deposition was released on Monday by Congressman Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

According to Congressional investigators Rove used the PowerPoint presentation at the West Virginia retreat to solicit Republican donors. But Rove's priority was to ensure that farmers in Oregon got the additional water they wanted from the Klamath River, so Senator Smith would be reelected. President Bush lost Oregon by less than one percent in the 2000 presidential election to Al Gore, according to polling results from the Associated Press.

Laying the groundwork to get Smith reelected, Rove set up a cabinet-level task force on Klamath River issues to specifically study whether diverting water from Klamath River to farmers would hurt the endangered Coho salmon population. The task force Rove set up gave the impression that the administration was going to take an unbiased look at the situation.

According to Michael Kelly, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, that wasn't the case. Kelly spoke out publicly in 2003 alleging that he was subjected to political pressure and ordered to ignore scientific evidence that said the plan would likely kill off tens of thousands of Coho salmon, and to support the Klamath River low-water plan Rove wanted enacted to help farmers, who Rove saw as a crucial part of the Republican constituency in the state.

In March 2002, in a sudden reversal of a long standing policy, then Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and Senator Smith held a joint press conference in Klamath Falls and opened up the irrigation system releasing thousands of gallons of water to 220,000 acres of farmland. The policy shift left the Klamath River basin with unusually low river flows that summer and ended up killing more than 30,000 endangered Coho salmon - the largest fish kill in the history of the West. But the move, as orchestrated by Rove, ended up getting Smith reelected that November.

House testimony has revealed that Rove's traveling PowerPoint show was probably a screaming violation of the laws against the use of civil servants for partisan political advantage.

Most of this is not really news. The story was reported at the time by those left-wing muck-rakers at the Wall Street Journal, although specific evidence that the Rove presentation might well be in violation of the Hatch Act were either as-yet unnoticed or scrubbed clean.

Still, a number of suggestive hints were there in that 2003 Journal article that the politicization of the cabinet departments--including the transformation of the Department of Interior into an auxiliary wing of the GOP re-election machine--was already well underway, and slipping into gear on Gordon Smith's behalf:

His [Rove's] remarks weren't entirely welcome -- especially by officials grappling with the competing arguments made by environmentalists, who wanted river levels high to protect endangered salmon, and Indian tribes, who depend on the salmon for their livelihoods. Neil McCaleb, then an assistant Interior secretary, recalls the "chilling effect" of Mr. Rove's remarks. Wayne Smith, then with the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to "support our base." Both men since have left the department.

An Interior spokesman, Mark Pfeifle, says Mr. Rove spoke in general terms about the Klamath conflict in the course of a broader discussion. Without directing a policy outcome, Mr. Pfeifle says, Mr. Rove simply "indicated the need to help the basin's farmers." In the end, that is what happened when Interior reversed its previous stance and released more water. […]

With the benefit of hindsight, we can safely agree: Rove certainly wasn't interested in a policy outcome per se--only a political one. If it could have been demonstrated that, instead of mollifying the Klamath basin farmers, Smith's 2002 re-election hinged on putting up those 30,000 Coho salmon in the Presidential Suite at the Ritz-Carlton, they'd be there right now, ordering cut-plug herring from room service and watching on-demand movies.

More hints from that 2002 WSJ article--biologist Kelly wasn't just "under political pressure;" he'd actually sought government protection as a whistle-blower:
A National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, Michael Kelly, has asked for protection under federal "whistle-blower" laws, saying he was subjected to political pressure to go along with the low-water plan and ordered to ignore scientific evidence casting doubt on the plan. This month, a federal judge ruled the administration violated the Endangered Species Act in the way it justified the water diversion.

And finally, this gem from the Journal article, suggesting that Smith isn't the only part of this fish tale that stinks:
A few weeks ago, the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Klamath Falls warned farmers that the department would curtail the irrigation flow. Irate, Republican Rep. Greg Walden began making calls to protest. His first one went to Mr. Rove's office.

Within hours, the idea was dropped.
Interior officials say managers from two cabinet departments agreed on a way to avoid it.

"Within hours." You've really got to love service like that.

Was Smith aware that the actions taken by Rove in the Klamath River basin to help his 2002 re-election were part of Rove's larger efforts to illegally politicize every part of the Federal government? I have no idea. But it's still a hell of a statistic: 30,000 dead Coho salmon, to boost Smith's campaign over the top.

Remember that the next time you hear Smith (or Walden) trying to position himself as environmentally friendly for re-election season.

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