Not Quite Ready for His Close-Up

University of St. Thomas prof John Cragan, having his Warhol moment

University of St. Thomas prof John Cragan, having his Warhol moment

Ticking through the impressive list of big media outfits that have cited his work in the last few weeks—CNN, the Washington Post, even that "ultimate sanctioning agent," the New York Times—Dr. John F. Cragan looks pleased.

He is bright-eyed and at ease, just as you might expect from a University of St. Thomas communications professor who has 12 books and one Warhol moment already under his belt. The latter, he recalls with a chuckle, came in the late 1970s, after he and a colleague programmed a computer to write the perfect political speech. It hit a nerve and Walter Cronkite and Newsweek came calling.

But the attention paid to Cragan's latest research—carried out with longtime collaborator Donald Shields, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis—has been a bigger deal. Last week, Cragan was invited to talk about his findings on The Colbert Report, the popular Comedy Central fake news show. Because it was finals week, Cragan reluctantly passed the engagement on to Shields.

"Colbert did what he always does, took a nerdy professor and beat up on him," Cragan says. But laughs aside, Cragan was impressed with Colbert. In his view, Colbert did a better job than CNN in distilling the findings of his most recent paper, "The Political Profiling of Elected Democratic Officials: When Rhetorical Vision Participation Runs Amok."

In a nutshell, Cragan and Shields contend that federal prosecutors during the Bush administration have investigated Democratic officials seven times as often as Republicans. That disparity, they write, suggests a widespread practice of "political profiling." The aim? To "make Democrats look like they are more corrupt than Republicans, just as racial minorities are made to look more corrupt than whites by the practice of racial profiling."

When the professors released a similar version of their findings in 2004, hardly anyone noticed. The only print mention, Cragan says, came from the student newspaper at Illinois State University.

But interest in his work has caught fire in the wake of the burgeoning scandal over the recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

In the view of administration critics, the so-called "Gonzales Eight"—named for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—were victims of a political purge. They were sacked, the argument goes, either because they prosecuted Republicans or failed to prosecute Democrats.

The professors' findings fit well with that narrative. By their count, over the course of the Bush presidency, U.S. attorneys nationwide have investigated some 298 Democratic elected officials and candidates, compared to just 67 Republicans. By the professors' calculations, the odds of such an imbalance occurring at random are approximately one in 10,000.

Paul Krugman, the influential New York Times columnist, highlighted that finding in a March 9 column. Since then, the Gonzales Eight scandal has deepened and Cragan and Shields's eye-popping conclusions have served as a useful talking point.

But are their numbers reliable?

Consider the Minnesota examples in the report. Cragan and Shields identify seven former or current office holders who they say were investigated by the Department of Justice.

There's no disputing that assertion in four of the named instances. Former Minneapolis City Council members Brian Heron, Joe Biernat, and Dean Zimmermann were all convicted in federal court on charges related to public corruption, as was Loren Jennings, a former state representative. All are Democrats, except for Zimmermann, who is a Green.

But there are questions about the claims regarding the other three Democrats who made the professors' list—U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. None was ever prosecuted by the U.S. attorney. Further, from the publicly available information upon which the professors relied, there is no definitive indication that any of the three were under investigation.

The inference that Kelly was targeted arises from reports of a 2005 bribery probe focusing on a top Kelly aide. At the time, Kelly, who did not return calls for this story, stated that the investigation was being used to tar him politically. He also intimated that the leak came from a fellow Democrat.

The notion of Kelly as a victim of Bush administration political profiling seems far-fetched when you recall that Kelly—in an act that would doom his political career—crossed party lines to endorse Bush for re-election.

Such inconvenient details have created a curious situation. Loyal Democrats like Rybak now find themselves challenging findings that are being used—very effectively—as a cudgel against the Bush administration. Last week, Andrew Luger, an attorney for Rybak, fired off a letter to Cragan and Shields, asking that Rybak be removed from the list. "There was no investigation of Mayor Rybak. It's pretty straightforward," Luger says flatly.

In an email defending the inclusion of Rybak, Shields cited a press release the mayor sent in response to a Star Tribune story about a federal investigation at City Hall. The case resulted in the conviction of former council member Biernat on the charge of accepting free plumbing work, but nothing at Biernat's trial or in subsequent news stories implicated the mayor in any wrongdoing.

So what led to the inference that the mayor was being investigated by the feds?

In the press release, Rybak said: "We have no information from the U.S. Attorney's Office about the purpose or scope of the investigation. We will fully cooperate with the U.S. Attorney's Office if they request our assistance."

It's the kind of boilerplate copy any politician would issue, but to Shields, it was enough to lump Rybak in with the Democrats who had been targeted by the feds.

While it's possible Rybak was investigated, it's highly doubtful. Tom Heffelfinger was the U.S. attorney in Minnesota until his resignation last year. Under federal law, Heffelfinger says, he cannot comment on investigations that did not result in charges. But it doesn't take a scholar to read between the lines: "Rybak should be pissed off," Heffelfinger says. "That's irresponsible for someone to publish something like that."

And Rybak isn't the only Minnesotan to land on the list for questionable reasons. Cragan and Shields included Senator Klobuchar because she called the FBI on one of her campaign workers. That worker, whom Klobuchar promptly fired, had viewed an unaired political advertisement by using a password to gain access to the rival campaign's consultant website. But does Klobuchar's reporting of this relatively minor incident really signify that she was "investigated" by the U.S. attorney—and was thus a victim of "political profiling"?

Like Heffelfinger, David Lillehaug thinks it is next to impossible for outsiders to quantify non-prosecuted "investigations" at the Department of Justice. Lillehaug, a Democrat who served as Minnesota's U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, says that U.S. attorneys should be judged on the basis of verifiable records—in other words, whom they prosecute.

"I'm glad they [Shields and Cragan] are looking at this, but it's a pretty complicated enterprise," Lillehaug says. "Identifying targets is very difficult. It would be more useful to look only at prosecutions."

Unfortunately, Cragan and Shields did not separate their tally of prosecuted public corruption cases from the more nebulous tally of officials who were "under investigation."

"I wish I had," Cragan says. "If we could redo it, we would."

That said, Cragan insists his findings are fundamentally accurate. The Rybak case, he offers, was a close call. "Was he really under investigation or was he not? You read the press release on that," Cragan says. He acknowledges that there could be "another 20 [similar] cases" but doesn't think that matters much. "When you have 400 or so cases to start with, that data is not going to change. That's the theory of large numbers. When you take a larger and larger sample, the distribution becomes more stable. That's why we can predict elections before counting every ballot."

But by week's end, Cragan had reversed course and decided to excise Rybak from the list.

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