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updated 10/18/2007 2:20:34 PM ET 2007-10-18T18:20:34
ANALYSIS

This time are Democrats inserting politics into the judicial process?

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Allow me to take a break from that wacky White House 2008 campaign (Democrats attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton, Republicans warning of World War III and states breaking the time-space continuum to move their primaries back to last spring) to talk about Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Velez.

Who's she, you ask? Exactly. Her story has barely warranted a blip among Beltway insiders. But it's one worth sharing, a stern warning to Democrats as they settle into their new digs of power on Capitol Hill and anticipate a White House victory next year.

One month after an anonymous senator placed a "secret hold" on her nomination, Rodriguez-Velez, the interim U.S. attorney in Puerto Rico who has waged an intensive probe of the island territory's ruling Democratic Party, remains in political limbo. In a skirmish that could have a decisive impact on Puerto Rico's gubernatorial election next year, her nomination has been blocked by a lawmaker who, while unnamed, is widely believed to be an ally of the Democrats she's targeting in her three-year corruption investigation.

It's hard to miss the irony; while the Senate is well-poised to confirm Michael Mukasey as the nation's 81st attorney general, Rodriguez-Velez serves as a not-so-quiet reminder of the U.S. attorneys scandal that marred the tenure of Mukasey's would-be predecessor. Only this time, it's Democrats who may be inserting politics into the judicial process.

Shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Rodriguez-Velez's nomination by voice vote -- but just days before the Senate outlawed its time-honored practice of permanent "secret holds" -- a lawmaker asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to indefinitely delay a floor vote. It's unclear who is blocking her, but several insiders have fingered Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a close ally of Anibal Acevedo-Vila, the Democratic governor under investigation for campaign finance irregularities in his 2000 campaign. Acevedo-Vila faces a tough re-election fight in 2008 against the island's non-voting House delegate, Republican Luis Fortuno.

Menendez and Acevedo-Vila are old friends. They served together in the House, where Acevedo-Vila strongly backed Menendez in 2003 to chair the House Democratic Caucus.

"There are only so many Hispanic Democratic senators with close ties to Puerto Rico's governor," said a knowledgeable Democratic source. "I would start by asking the Hispanic Democratic senator from the East Coast."

A Menendez spokesperson declined to comment, saying it's the senator's policy not to discuss "secret holds."

The details differ, but comparisons to the U.S. attorney scandal that felled Alberto Gonzales abound: While Gonzales apparently pressured prosecutors to conduct investigations in a manner that would influence the outcome of elections, Rodriguez-Velez's investigation of Acevedo-Vila could dramatically affect the race between the governor and Fortuno, who supports the prosecutor's nomination. The Democrat may be forced to quit the race if an indictment is handed down by the grand jury Rodriguez-Velez has convened. That could mean big changes for Puerto Rico -- and Democrats, who have long been the island's dominant party.

The imbroglio also appears to have seeped into K Street's lobbying community: Two longtime lobbyists for Puerto Rico's government -- Charles Black of BKSH & Associates and former Democratic Sen. John Culver of Iowa, now a lobbyist with the Washington D.C.-based law firm Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn -- have reached out to Senate contacts to argue against Rodriguez-Velez's confirmation.

High-ranking Puerto Rican officials allied with Acevedo-Vila have also weighed in. "One can suggest benign reasons for the nominee's behavior," wrote Miguel Pereira, the Puerto Rico secretary of corrections, an Acevedo-Vila ally, in a letter last month to Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "One can also assign, even more strongly wicked ones, including an outright desire" to use federal power to interfere with island politics.

The practice of placing secret "holds" on nominations, both judicial and otherwise, as an act of political retaliation is nothing new. Such motivations were a key reason that Congress voted to enact the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which bars anonymous "holds" on nominees. But the hold placed on Rodriguez-Velez's nomination should serve as a warning to a Democratic majority, which returned to power by characterizing an entrenched GOP as more focused on hoarding power than helping people.

So, how much attention has the Rodriguez-Velez story generated? A Nexis search of "Alberto Gonzales" and "U.S. attorneys" over the past year yields thousands of news stories. A search of the Puerto Rico prosecutor and the New Jersey senator? Not one.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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