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Curious move in Abramoff case If you believe in coincidence, then taking prosecutor off investigation makes sense

Jack Abramoff prosecutor Noel Hillman may deserve the White House nomination he recently got for a federal judgeship in New Jersey, but the timing is suspicious and the probe into unethical and illegal activities in Washington will suffer.

Hillman was chief of the Justice Department's Office of Public Integrity until the nomination caused him to step down. He was deeply involved in the federal probe of activities by super-lobbyist Abramoff and his colleagues, and sat in on the negotiations that led to plea deals in return for cooperation that could reveal which congressmen or agency officials took what in return for favors. Two years of experience are lost, just when the investigation zeros in on its most important targets.

Coincidence? Maybe, if you believe in such things. The selection process, according to the Justice Department, started a year ago. Hillman was part of a batch of nominations to judgeships that needed to be filled, and he wants the job. But this probe now is venturing deeply into Congress -- and most notably its Republicans, although a few Democrats also received campaign donations from Abramoff clients. It's also looking hard into the Bush administration bureaucracy. Removing an aggressive prosecutor at this point will pass the sniff test only if the Justice Department finds an equally aggressive replacement -- or the White House agrees to a special prosecutor.

The current investigation now is tainted, Hillman's experience already lost. The challenge the government faces is to enact meaningful ethics reforms that tighten the rules and end limits on complaints and internal investigations. But it's not enough to hold officials more accountable to their own houses of Congress in future cases. The present probe needs to gain momentum, not lose it -- and that means a replacement prosecutor just as independent, aggressive and involved as Hillman, or more so. Otherwise, this nomination stinks.

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