Obama may be stuck with anti-pot crusading GOP US Attorney
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday December 8, 2008

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Chong prosecutor dares Obama to fire her

If someone were to make a list of all the things a federal prosecutor could spend his or her time on to distract from fighting the war on terror, organized crime and other top Justice Department priorities, that list would mirror Mary Beth Buchanan's most touted accomplishments during her previous seven years as a US Attorney.

Now the Bush-appointee -- who spent $12 million to put that oh-so-notorious kingpin Tommy Chong behind bars for nine months -- has been struck with another bout of headline-grabbing obstinance. Buchanan says she won't step down once President-elect Obama takes office next month.

"It doesn't serve justice for all the U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations all at one time," she told a local paper last week, adding, "I am open to considering further service to the United States."

The defiant posture and break with tradition could complicate Obama's attempt to put his own mark on a Justice Department that has seen its reputation sullied over the last eight years. Some speculate Buchanan is essentially daring the president-elect to fire her.

Buchanan's prosecution of Chong, which was profiled in a 2006 documentary, was by no means her only unorthodox crusade against relatively harmless transgressors. She also pursued the first federal obscenity case in two decades, against a pornography producer, and she's pursued public corruption charges against outspoken Democrats.

After Operation Pipe Dreams -- the sting aimed at Chong and other pot paraphernalia providers -- Buchanan went after the manufacturer of devises like the Whizzinator and other products aimed at helping people beat drug tests. This operation (coincidentally, we're sure) led to federal agents raiding the distributor of documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong and confiscating several thousand DVD copies of the film.

Libertarians and drug war critics note that law enforcement agencies -- whether they be federal, state or local -- can always find a better use of their time and money than cracking down on harmless pot smokers or porn peddlers.

What makes Buchanan's actions particularly egregious, they say, is that she pursued these mixed up priorities in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which intimately affected her own jurisdiction. Flight 93 crashed in her western Pennsylvania district.

Buchanan's indication that she's not leaving -- as all US Attorneys customarily do following a change in administration -- does not mean her continued employment with the federal government is assured. Obama, like every president, has the authority to hire and fire federal prosecutors for virtually any reason; however, he may face some criticism if he moves quickly to oust Buchanan.

After all, Democrats have spent the last two years criticizing President Bush's politicization of the Justice Department and routinely firing US Attorneys with whom he disagreed. While the two situations -- assuming Obama gets rid of Buchanan -- would not be directly comparable, it's not hard to imagine the cries of "hypocrisy" one would hear from the same right wing pundits whose defense of executive power to this point has been nearly boundless.

Indeed, such a controversy may be just what Buchanan wants, as Reason magazine's Radley Balko hypothesizes.

"Buchanan isn’t delusional.  She’s calculating," he writes. "My guess is that this is a stunt to force Obama to fire her, at which point she’ll make a public stink, play the martyr, then attempt to parlay the resulting controversy into a run for the Senate, or perhaps for governor of Pennsylvania."