Burr blocks U.S. attorney pick over Easley, Edwards probes

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr said Thursday that he will delay the confirmation of Charlotte lawyer Thomas G. Walker as U.S. attorney for Eastern North Carolina until investigations into two of the state's most prominent Democrats are completed.

Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, wants U.S. Attorney George Holding to finish his inquiries into former Gov. Mike Easley and former Sen. John Edwards, a two-time presidential candidate. Holding was appointed by President George W. Bush.

Burr notified President Barack Obama of his decision through the White House counsel's office. Obama nominated Walker last week.

Burr's decision was a quick turnaround. A spokesman said last week that Burr would not block Walker's nomination as it moved through the Senate. North Carolina Republicans rallied to call Burr's Senate officeover the past week to demand he block Walker.

Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, has also said Holding should be allowed to continue his investigations and has made her case to Obama administration officials. She has not said whether she will exercise her right to hold up Walker's nomination.

In a statement Thursday, Hagan spokeswoman Stephanie Allen reiterated Hagan's view that Holding should finish his investigations.

Burr and Hagan both say they support Walker and recommended him for the post to Obama. But Burr said in a statement Thursday that Walker should not start work yet, in part because he contributed to Easley's campaign.

"It is clear, though, that political contributions made by Mr. Walker to the former North Carolina elected officials currently under investigation represent a conflict of interest, and would potentially require his recusal from those very investigations," Burr said.

Burr said he told Obama his opinions on Walker and the investigation in a letter in July. His office refused Thursday to release the letter.

Burr said delaying the confirmation would ensure that the investigations and any potential prosecutions would be impartial, inspire public confidence in the process and protect Walker from the taint of a potential conflict.

"Upon conclusion of those investigations by Mr. Holding, I will sign Mr. Walker's blue slip," Burr said.

The blue slip is, by tradition, a form that home-state senators return to the Senate Judiciary Committee with their thoughts on judicial and U.S. attorney nominees. A senator could delay or block a nominee's confirmation by withholding the blue slip.

By policy, the Senate Judiciary Committee will not schedule a U.S. attorney nominee until the blue slips from home-state senators have been returned, a spokeswoman said Thursday. There is no time limit on holding up a nominee.

'As long as it takes'

"It could take a long time. It needs to take as long as it takes," said Tom Fetzer, chairman of the state Republican Party. Fetzer said that Holding appears to be "the only guy who's doing anything" about cleaning up corruption in North Carolina and that he endorsed Burr's move.

"I don't think Richard's decision today was a reaction to any external pressure," Fetzer said.

"I think he just decided this was the right thing to do."

Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant, said Burr's move appears calculated as he prepares to run for re-election next year.

"It means he thinks he can hurt Democrats in North Carolina by doing it," Pearce said. "I suspect it has more to do with politics than justice."

Pearce added that Hagan has appeared uncertain on the issue. "I think she kind of flopped around on it too," he said. "She wanted to have it both ways."

Efforts to reach Holding on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Walker was the first nominee out of the gate for North Carolina's three federal districts, and as such it raised eyebrows among some observers. But Democrats have grumbled since spring about how soon Obama would replace U.S. attorneys.

"The president is entitled to have his own person as U.S. attorney, and now he has nominated one, and Burr makes it difficult," said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who follows judicial matters.

"A lot of Democrats are upset that Bush folks are still around. That's a legitimate gripe. It's a big piece of patronage."