Monday, April 23, 2007

U.S. Scandal Threatens Alaska's Prosecutor

Nelson Cohen was appointed U.S. attorney for Alaska in August 2006.

The Anchorage Daily News reports:
The state’s chief federal prosecutor, Pittsburgh native Nelson Cohen, owes his job to the U.S. attorney in his hometown, who succeeded in getting him the Anchorage post over Alaskans nominated by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens.

But now, the U.S. attorney scandal threatening to topple Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may cost Cohen his job here. His “interim” appointment will vanish when that classification is amended out of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which is expected to happen in the next few months.

At the same time, Mary Beth Buchanan, Cohen’s well-connected benefactor and former boss, is in trouble herself, with investigators from the House Judiciary Committee wanting to question her over what role she may have played in deciding which U.S. attorneys got fired, allegedly for partisan reasons.

There are no claims that Cohen got his job here to help or hinder political prosecutions in Alaska, as is alleged in New Mexico, San Diego and other areas where U.S. attorneys were replaced. Pittsburgh Democrats who worked with him and defended clients against him described Cohen, a registered Republican, as a skilled career prosecutor who distanced himself from the Bush administration’s agenda.

Nevertheless, Murkowski and Stevens say they are looking for an “Alaskan” to replace him.

Cohen, who spent about a decade in Alaska before returning home to Pittsburgh in 1987, said he’d like to keep the job but is not actively politicking to do so. He’d like to stay in Alaska, he said, but he still owns his house in Pennsylvania. “I did not come here seeking to be a presidential-appointed U.S. attorney,” he said.


U.S. attorneys in districts across the country manage teams of prosecutors who enforce federal laws on drugs, immigration, natural resources, weapons and taxes, among others. They are also playing an increasing role in counterterrorism efforts.

The U.S. attorney position in Alaska opened Jan. 23, 2006, when Timothy Burgess left to become a U.S. district judge. His first assistant, Deborah Smith, was named acting U.S. attorney that day. U.S. attorneys are typically nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Traditionally, Alaska’s two U.S. senators send the names of one or more Alaskans to the White House for consideration. Sen. Murkowski said her clear choice was Smith, a career prosecutor who started out in the federal prosecutor’s office in Anchorage in 1982 and worked in Boston and Washington.

Sen. Stevens wouldn’t reveal his choices.

After submitting Smith’s name, Murkowski said in a telephone interview, her legislative director periodically called the White House during the first part of 2006 to check the status of the nomination.

“We’d get these vague, 'Oh, we’re still working on it, still working on it,’ ” Murkowski said. “So it gets to the point where you’re thinking, 'Wait a minute, this has been a heck of a long time. What is happening?’ And so the response to my inquiry is, 'We still haven’t, there’s some issues,’ and ultimately what we got back was, 'The picks were not acceptable by the White House,’ and yet no explanation as to why they’re not acceptable.”

When she was in Alaska for the August 2006 recess, Murkowski’s Blackberry vibrated with a message. It was her chief aide in Alaska, Mary Hughes, citing a media report that Nelson Cohen had been named interim U.S. attorney.

“You just think, 'It can’t be, wait.’ There was no consulting, no process, no nothing. That’s where I was certainly caught blindsided,” Murkowski said.

Stevens, himself a former federal prosecutor in Alaska, was enraged. “I am just furious at the way the attorney general handled this,” he said at the time.

In an interview at his office in the Federal Building last week, Cohen said he was unaware of all the political forces that resulted in his appointment. But he knew his boss, Buchanan, was well-connected, and it was she who told him about the opening in Alaska.


Through a spokeswoman, Buchanan declined a request for an interview. But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported that she pushed the White House agenda, prosecuting such targets as famed cinematic pothead Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame, for selling bongs over the Internet. She also went after pornographers in California.

The Post-Gazette said Buchanan’s office prosecuted a host of public corruption cases - all against Democrats. One of them, former Allegheny County medical examiner Cyril Wecht, was in Anchorage last week to lecture at the University of Alaska.

Wecht, a physician and lawyer in his 70s who is awaiting trial, said it was ridiculous to think that only Democrats were worthy of public corruption cases in western Pennsylvania.

Cohen was Buchanan’s chief deputy for white-collar crime, but Wecht’s attorney, Mark Rush, said he didn’t appear to have a role in Wecht’s case.

“Nelson Cohen is a professional federal prosecutor,” Rush said. “That’s what Nelson Cohen wants to be, and that’s what I think he will do for the rest of his life. I don’t see political ambition.” Tom Farrell, another former Pittsburgh colleague, said of Cohen: “He’s smart, he’s hardworking, very fair.” Years ago, when President Clinton was in office, the attorneys sharply divided on partisan grounds about whether he should be impeached, Farrell said. Cohen was one of the few at the water cooler “who never got heated.” Farrell, a Democrat, said he hadn’t known that Cohen was a registered Republican. What he seemed to be, though, was a man longing to return to Alaska, Farrell said. His office was decorated with photographs and mementos from his 10 years in Anchorage. Cohen’s wife, Colleen, grew up in Fort Yukon and Fairbanks, the daughter of noted Wien Air bush pilot Keith Harrington. Their three children were born in Alaska.

Gonzales named Cohen to the job in Alaska under a provision inserted into the Patriot Act at the request of the White House when the law was amended by Congress in 2006. It allowed interim U.S. attorney appointments to become permanent without Senate approval.

Eight U.S. attorneys were fired, then replaced under that provision. As the scandal unfolded this year, the House and Senate passed bills restoring the previous selection method, but the bills are slightly different and need to be resolved in a conference committee before they become law. President Bush has said he would sign a final bill. According to a statement from Sen. Stevens’ office, Cohen would then lose his appointment.

“Senator Murkowski and I will continue to look for a candidate that we could nominate and who will serve Alaska with distinction,” Stevens said in a prepared statement.