The Justice Department's inspector general and the F.B.I. are looking
into the demotion of a veteran federal prosecutor whose reassignment nearly
three years ago shut down a criminal investigation of the Washington lobbyist
Jack Abramoff, current and former department officials report.
They said investigators had questioned whether the demotion of the prosecutor,
Frederick A. Black, in November 2002 was related to his alert to Justice Department
officials days earlier that he was investigating Mr. Abramoff. The lobbyist
is a major Republican Party fund-raiser and a close friend of several Congressional
Colleagues said the demotion of Mr. Black, the acting United
States attorney in Guam,
and a subsequent order barring him from pursuing public corruption cases brought
an end to his inquiry into Mr. Abramoff's lobbying work for some Guam judges.
Colleagues of Mr. Black, who had run the federal prosecutor's office in Guam
for 12 years, spoke on condition of anonymity because of Justice Department
rules that bar employees from talking to reporters. They said F.B.I. agents
questioned several people in Guam and Washington this summer about whether Mr.
Abramoff or his friends in the Bush administration had pushed for Mr. Black's
removal. Mr. Abramoff's internal e-mail messages show that he boasted
to clients about what he described as his close ties to John Ashcroft, then
the attorney general, and others at the department.
Mr. Black's colleagues said that similar questions had been raised by investigators
for the Justice Department's inspector general's office, which serves as the
department's internal watchdog.
Spokesmen for the department in Washington have said there was nothing unusual
about the timing of Mr. Black's reassignment in 2002. They said it was appropriate
for the Bush administration to want to replace him with a permanent, Senate-confirmed
United States attorney.
Mr. Abramoff, once one of the capital's best-paid lobbyists, is now the subject
of a broad corruption investigation by federal prosecutors in Washington focusing
on accusations that he defrauded Indian tribes and their gambling operations
out of millions of dollars in lobbying fees.
A spokesman for Mr. Abramoff said he had "no recollection of being
investigated in Guam in 2002" but would have cooperated if he had been
aware of any inquiry at the time. Mr. Abramoff had a lucrative lobbying practice
on Guam and the neighboring Northern
Mariana Islands, another American territory; his lobbying clients
paid for luxurious trips to the islands for several members of Congress.
Justice Department officials said they knew of no evidence to suggest that
Mr. Ashcroft was involved in the decision to reassign Mr. Black. A spokesman
for Mr. Ashcroft said the former attorney general and his aides at the Justice
Department had done nothing to assist Mr. Abramoff and his clients and had had
no significant contact with him.
Reached in Guam, Mr. Black, who continues to work as an assistant United States
attorney, declined to answer questions about his 2002 reassignment.
The Los Angeles Times and news organizations in Guam have reported on questions
about the circumstances of Mr. Black's demotion. The recent inquiries by the
F.B.I. and by the Justice Department's inspector general had not been previously
reported; nor had Mr. Black's contacts in November 2002 with the department's
public integrity section about his investigation of Mr. Abramoff.
In a statement on Monday, the department said it was natural for the Bush administration
to replace Mr. Black, whose assignment to run the United States attorney's office
was never meant to be permanent, with a White House selection.
The department said the vetting process for Mr. Black's replacement, Leonardo
Rapadas, the current United States attorney, was "well under way in November
2002," when the nomination was announced.
Colleagues said they recalled that Mr. Black was distressed when he was notified
by the department in November 2002 that he was being replaced.
The announcement came only days after Mr. Black had notified the department's
public integrity division in Washington, by telephone and e-mail communication,
that he had opened a criminal investigation into Mr. Abramoff's lobbying activities
for the Guam judges, the colleague said. The judges had sought Mr. Abramoff's
help in blocking a bill in Congress to restructure the island's courts.
The colleagues said that Mr. Black was also surprised when his newly arrived
bosses in Guam blocked him from involvement in public corruption cases in 2003.
Justice Department officials said Mr. Black was asked instead to focus on terrorism
investigations, which had taken on new emphasis after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Whatever the motivation in replacing Fred, his demotion meant
that the investigation of Abramoff died," said a former colleague in Guam.
The Justice Department's public integrity section is responsible for cases
involving government corruption. It is now overseeing the larger investigation
of Mr. Abramoff in Washington.
Representative George Miller, a California
Democrat who has long focused on issues involving American territories in the
Pacific, said the disclosures about Mr. Black's demotion raised questions about
a possible conflict of interest at the Justice Department in its investigation
of Mr. Abramoff.
"What this starts to suggest is that Abramoff's ability to corrupt
the system was far more pervasive, certainly than we knew at the time,"
Mr. Miller said.