No news is good news.

The questions Steven Colbert didn't ask.

Three weeks ago, amid mounting proof that the Bush administration has based the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors on their aptitude for political profiling, a local communications professor scored a guest spot on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.

On March 13 University of Missouri-St. Louis professor emeritus Donald C. Shields told fake-news-show anchor Stephen Colbert about a study he's working on, which reveals that while real-world demographics would lead one to expect that about half of all federal investigations of elected officials and candidates would target Democrats, Dems have been in the crosshairs in a whopping 80 percent of all probes since 2001.

The interview's most colorful exchange:

Colbert:The Republicans are in power, so they're using the full force of the federal government to target the Democrats specifically to make sure they get all the corrupt ones out of there. I mean, that's government efficiency.

Shields: Well, that's kind of the way Hitler started out in Nazi Germany, isn't it?

Colbert: Well, I mean, he started out efficiently. He got bad later. But first it was about making the trains run on time. You gotta give me that. You gotta give me that!

Shields: I'll give you that.

(That one drew a few lumps from the conservative Web site NewsBusters.org: "Note to Colbert: If you're going to play a right-winger, even a loose satire of a conservative, you usually don't defend Hitler. Of course, this is the same host that once compared Rush Limbaugh to Charles Manson and mocked his addiction to pain killers.")

"It's a trip," Shields says of the Colbert spot. "It was fun — I'm a hero on campus now. The college students, that's all they watch."

The professor attributes the origin of his study, co-authored by University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) communications professor John F. Cragan, to serendipity. "We started working on the study just before 2003, in November or December," he recalls. "We started off studying the rhetoric of [then-U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft. He was running around the country giving all these speeches about toughening up on public corruption, and so we started checking the U.S. Attorneys' Offices to see if they were listening to him. I guess we found out they were."

In an op-ed piece on the Web site ePluribusMedia.org, Shields and Cragan describe the study as "ongoing." But they mince no words about the "unethical practice" they've already uncovered: "Our ongoing study...investigates the implications of the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzales Justice Department's blended religious-fundamentalist and neo-conservative rhetorical vision. The study views the impact of the Justice Department's vision on the fight against public corruption and reveals the non-proportionate political profiling of elected Democratic officials...."

The numbers are even more skewed at the local level, write the professors: "Data indicate that the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven (7) times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops."

Given the actual distribution of Democratic and Republican office holders, the odds of such an imbalance occurring at random are one in ten thousand, according to the authors' computations.

But what if their own data are unreliable?

That's the question Mike Mosedale, a staff writer at Riverfront Times' Minneapolis sibling, City Pages, asked in a March 21 news story.

Taking a closer look at the Minnesotans Cragan and Shields caught in their net, Mosedale found that in three of seven instances cited, elected officials or candidates purportedly under investigation almost certainly weren't.

The discrepancies stem from the professors' methodology, which relies on Google searches and press releases issued by U.S. Attorneys' Offices nationwide. As Mosedale discovered, some names made the list simply because they were mentioned in a news story or press release linked to a federal investigation.

That's dicey territory, particularly in light of the Justice Department's long-standing policy of refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation. Moreover, in computing their tally the professors make no distinction as to whether a purported investigation resulted in indictments and/or convictions.

In their op-ed article, Cragan and Shields call for the creation of a federal registry to catalog federal investigations of elected officials and candidates. While Congress ponders that suggestion, the professors have plenty of time to take another pass through the data they've gathered before wrapping up research in 2009.

Residents of the St. Louis area, for example, might be surprised to see that the Cragan-Shields list contains no names that pertain to the recent voter-fraud prosecutions in East St. Louis. Press releases archived on the Web site of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois chronicle the cases of five East St. Louisans found guilty and sentenced on vote-buying charges stemming from the November 2004 elections. Prominent among the guilty was Charles Powell Jr., chairman of the East St. Louis Democratic Party and an East St. Louis City Council member. Powell was sentenced to 21 months in prison and two years of supervised release.

Additionally, last December former Waterloo alderman Michael S. Augustine, also a Democrat, was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for arranging to have his restaurant, the Pop-N-Pizza, torched for the insurance money in 2003.

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