Victor Rita Case Makes Libby’s Commutation Look Suspicious

It’s hard to imagine a more apt and revealing counterpoint to Scooter Libby’s criminal case than the case of Victor Rita, a North Carolina vet who was accused by the feds of lying under oath, twice, about buying an illegal machine gun.

Both Rita and Libby were convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in federal cases. Both were sentenced to around 30 months in jail. Both sentences were appealed, and Bush officials at the highest levels were involved in the appeals as they played themselves out this year.

In their appeals, both Rita and Libby sought leniency based on their records of public service and current circumstances. Victor Rita served in the Marine Corps for 25 years, including tours of duty in Vietnam and Gulf War I. He is now advanced in age and in failing health. As a result of his crimes, he has been wiped out financially.

Pres. George Bush described Scooter Libby’s career in public service as “exceptional,” but a review of Libby’s bio reveals him to be a neocon bureaucrat who held a series of political positions in Republican administrations before moving up to the Cheney-Bush White House — where he was either a witness or a participant in skullduggery and shenanigans the half of which we don’t yet know. Otherwise, Libby is in his late 50s, appears to be in excellent health, and was able to pay his $250,000 fine out of his checking account, probably with the help of a defense fund set up by powerful Republicans friends like Fred Thompson and Mary Matalan.

Earlier this year the appeals by Rita and Libby both took dramatic turns, at which point the similarities between the two cases came to an abrupt end.

Rita’s moment came when his appeal was heard before the Supreme Court. Contrary to earlier accounts, the hearing was not in 2006. It was five months ago, on Feb. 20, 2007. And the Bush administration’s participation was not merely as a “friend of the court,” as it has been described. The government was a party, the respondent, in the appeal.

At the Supreme Court, Bush’s solicitor general, Paul Clement, argued for upholding Rita’s sentence, describing it as reasonable — a position very much in line with the administration’s tough stance on sentencing.

On June 21, the court issued its ruling, siding with the administration. Rita’s appeal was denied.

Less than two weeks later, on July 3, Pres. Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month sentence, calling it, without a trace of irony, “excessive.”

What Rita so aptly reveals is that the president’s stated reasons for commuting Libby’s sentence — the harshness of the sentence and Libby’s exceptional public service — were bogus. We can only speculate about his real motives, and it is too soon to know whether the commutation will turn out to be a political blunder of the first order or a criminal act, or both or neither.

But there appears to be blood in the water. The Bushies are out in force trying to change the storyline by slamming the Wilsons and desperately downplaying the seriousness of Libby’s crimes. (On Hardball yesterday, David Rivkin, trotted out the thoroughly debunked claim that Valerie Wilson was not covert.) They are desperate to deflect attention from the particulars of Libby’s crimes — that he was convicted of lying to a federal grand jury and the FBI and obstructing an investigation into a conspiracy at the top of the administration to out a CIA specialist in weapons of mass destruction.

This obfuscation may work as well this time as it has from the beginning. On the other hand, while average Americans found the CIA leak scandal to be boring or confusing or too inside-the-Beltway, they totally get a powerful man buying off a witness who knows where all his bodies are buried.