For DOJ's Ethics Cop, Decision on Memos Looms

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Top government jobs are often doled out as rewards for past favors. Mary Patrice Brown came to hold her job as the Department of Justice's top ethics cop in a slightly less complaisant way. Two years ago, when Brown was a federal prosecutor, she squared off against then private attorney Eric Holder in a tense plea negotiation that cost Holder's client, Chiquita Brands International, a $25 million fine and an admission that it had paid off Colombian terrorists to protect its lucrative banana-growing business there.

Brown is probably unwelcome at Chiquita, but the door to the Justice Department under now Attorney General Eric Holder swung wide open. Since April, Brown has been working for Holder as head of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Long considered a DOJ backwater, OPR assumed a higher profile in the final years of the Bush Administration amid widespread allegations of attorney misconduct, from the use of political litmus tests in hiring to improper firing of U.S. Attorneys.

Brown inherited an issue far more explosive than political misconduct: she has to determine whether officials in Bush's DOJ twisted laws to sanction harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, sought by the White House for its war on terror. Her predecessor, H. Marshall Jarrett, issued an internal report in January that, informed sources say, recommended disciplinary action by state bar associations for three former top DOJ lawyers — but no criminal prosecution. Brown has reviewed and commented on the 200-page draft, officials said, and sent it to Holder. He is expected to act on her recommendations soon.

Whatever Holder decides will ignite controversy. Human-rights activists and Democrats in Congress want the authors of the torture memos prosecuted. Holder will also have to weigh how much of the evidence — partly based on e-mail exchanges between the DOJ lawyers and other Administration officials, possibly including those in Vice President Dick Cheney's office — to release to the public.

Some Bush loyalists question whether Brown — or for that matter Holder — has the necessary perspective to judge the actions of officials who faced extraordinary pressure in the wake of Sept. 11. Brown's closest associates counter that no one is better equipped to balance the competing equities of antiterrorism and the treatment of terror suspects. The 52-year-old Georgetown University–trained lawyer sifted complex matters for 20 years at the U.S. Attorneys office in the District of Columbia. She prosecuted narcotics cases, wrote appeals, pursued instances of police and attorney misconduct and oversaw all civil and criminal cases. High-profile investigations on her watch at the U.S. Attorney's office included the post–Sept. 11 anthrax mailings to Capitol Hill and an illegal-use-of-force case against Blackwater contractors in Iraq.