Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bavarian Village letter sent to Alberto Gonzales

Will embattled attorney general deal with local issue?

Express Staff Writer

Photo by Associated Press Washington, D.C., lobbyist George Nethercutt Jr. makes a public appearance with President George W. Bush. Nethercutt has been hired by the city of Ketchum to lobby on behalf of affordable housing interests in West Ketchum.

A letter signed by most of the Idaho congressional delegation has been sent to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking for his help in resolving a dispute between the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boise and the city of Ketchum over the Bavarian Village apartments.

Dated July 12, the letter was signed by Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson. However, Ketchum City Attorney Ben Wurst said it was drafted by George Nethercutt Jr., a former congressman and well-connected Washington lobbyist hired by the city.

Eric Ablin, a spokesman with the U.S. Attorney General's Office, said on Monday that Gonzales had not yet received the letter.

The letter asks Gonzales for a meeting among himself or his representative, the Idaho delegation and the city of Ketchum.

"We propose that your office take steps to secure the transfer of the asset in question to the city of Ketchum or other appropriate entity in order that the local housing problem can be addressed," the letter states.

Bavarian Village became government property in 2004 after a local convicted drug smuggler forfeited them. Advocates for Real Community Housing offered the sole bid for the property when it was put up for auction by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in October 2005, but the IRS rejected the bid as too low.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boise has alleged that the city intimidated others from bidding. Both the city and ARCH deny that accusation, but the U.S. attorney has threatened legal action.

Asked if Gonzales might intervene in such a matter, spokesman Ablin said, "that depends." He said the letter would have to be reviewed first.

The letter states that the city wants to ensure that any sale of the property "will not result in the elimination of low-cost housing." It adds that such housing is scarce and that its lack is hurting the local economy. The letter asks that "no further steps be taken by your office to sell the property until we have exhausted the opportunity for settlement."

In a letter dated April 11, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Hall in Boise stated that his office had tried to work with the city and ARCH so they could buy the property for the government's previously undisclosed minimum bid of $3.5 million, but that the parties could not raise the money.

"It is illegal to interfere with a federal auction," Hall added.

In the same letter, Hall responding to a request by the Sun Valley city attorney asking for direct negotiation between the federal government and the city of Ketchum by stating that there is no authority allowing "the United States to bypass public commercial sale requirements of the law." Asked about that requirement, spokesman Ablin said he could not comment on the case.

Gonzales has been in the heat of controversy for several months over allegations that his firing of nine U.S. Attorneys in December was politicized. Numerous Democrats and some Republicans have called for his resignation following what they said was less than forthcoming testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that investigated the firings in April. The Washington, D.C.-based organization Common Cause has called for Gonzales' resignation "for demonstrating a reckless disregard for the obligations of his office by subverting the public interest for partisan political concerns," its Web site stated. Common Cause advocates "accountable government."

President George W. Bush and Gonzales have said the firings were mishandled but justified and have dismissed calls for the attorney general's resignation.

Asked what the mood was at the Department of Justice (the Attorney General's office), Albin said he could not say anything on the record.

Last week the House Judiciary Subcommittee rejected Bush's contention that "executive privilege" allowed him to order former White House counsel Harriet Miers not to testify before the subcommittee on her knowledge of the firings. The full committee could vote to hold Miers in contempt of Congress.

The U.S. Constitution does not expressly mention "executive privilege," a contention used by presidents to resist encroachments by Congress including requests for information, stated the legal news Web site, FindLaw. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected President Nixon's claim of executive privilege during the 1974 Watergate scandal when it ordered him to turn over Oval Office tapes and records in the criminal case against members of his administration, the Web site stated.

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