No news is good news.

The questions Steven Colbert didn't ask.

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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 "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, 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.

None of the eighteen Illinois investigations cited in the Cragan-Shields study involves cases in the Southern District of Illinois.

Meanwhile, of eleven Missouri names cited, one — Bill Waris — was neither in office nor running for a post at the time of the probe in question.

Two others appear not to pan out.

Jackson County Legislator Dan Tarwater testified before two grand juries in connection with a wide-ranging federal probe into county government that began in 2004. Both times, Tarwater says, he was a witness, not a target. Press accounts from the Kansas City Star back up this assertion. "I was interviewed by the FBI and had to go before two grand juries," Tarwater says by phone from Kansas City. "I was never under investigation," he says, adding, "If I run for office again and someone puts something like that [study] out there — not only is it wrong, it's slanderous."

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who at the time was the county prosecutor, was linked to that same probe. Cragan and Shields may have included his name on their list owing to press accounts of an assertion made by a political nemesis, then-Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, who reportedly alleged that Sanders was under investigation. (Both Sanders and Katheryn Shields are Democrats.)

But press accounts from the following day note that then-U.S. Attorney Todd Graves departed from Justice Department policy and issued a written statement declaring that Sanders wasn't the target of any probe.

"I can guarantee that I was never under investigation," Sanders says in a phone interview, pointing to the U.S. Attorney's statement. "I think that anyone that had honestly researched the issue would not have put me on that list. I question the motive of anyone who would put me on that list, and I would question the accuracy of the entire report."

Sanders says he was unaware of the professors' study, but he is familiar with Donald Shields — who, he notes, is Katheryn Shields' brother.

Adds Sanders: "If I'm being used as an example of someone who has been unfairly targeted or harassed, I should be taken off that list. I can't speak on a national level, but locally both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney have been gems to work with. They're 'R's and we're 'D's, but we've enjoyed a very good relationship."

Donald Shields defends the inclusion of Sanders and Tarwater. "We have no idea how many of these people were ever targets. We were kind of using a lay definition of 'investigation,'" Shields explains. "If a newspaper said that the feds were 'investigating,' then that was good enough. There were at least half a dozen cases where the U.S. Attorney said nothing was found. But [Sanders and Tarwater] were once said to have been under investigation. It's the political ramifications of that leak being given out that we're reporting on."

Regarding his relationship to Katheryn Shields, the professor notes that the study was begun long before his sister was the subject of any investigation. "I'm not related to the other 374 people in the study," he says. "They investigated her three different times when she was county executive, and she only gets to count for once [in the study]. And that happened to a lot of other people too — they investigate them every year, particularly in election years."

The eight actual Missouri investigations cited in the study have led to eight indictments and five convictions so far. (For more specifics, see the chart that accompanies this story.)

That statistic sheds new light on a March 9 column by New York Times op-ed writer (and former Colbert Report guest) Paul Krugman. If Stephen Colbert introduced Cragan and Shields to the ironic crowd, Krugman did the honors for the intelligentsia. (Patrick Leahy was the first to widely publicize the study; the U.S. Senator from Vermont referenced Cragan-Shields in mid-February in a statement supporting a bill to reverse the legislation that has allowed the White House to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys to indefinite terms without Senate confirmation.)

Krugman wrote that the White House has had "prosecutors...harassing Democrats while turning a blind eye to Republican malfeasance."

Unless you consider prosecuting crimes to be "harassment," Krugman appears to be only half right.

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