The Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines today to endorse Bryan Cave partner James Cole for the No. 2 position in the U.S. Justice Department.
The vote for Cole came minutes after the committee endorsed Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, and the vote on Cole was even more polarized. All Democrats supported Cole, while all Republicans opposed him.
Nevertheless, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the committee’s top Republican, said he expects the Senate to confirm Cole as deputy attorney general.
Republicans said they were dissatisfied with Cole’s answers to their questions, particularly on the subject of American International Group. Cole served as an outside monitor to AIG after the company agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department in 2004, four years before the company’s near-collapse during the financial crisis.
Senators said that a confidentiality agreement prevents them from publicly discussing internal AIG documents that they have reviewed. But some senators spoke about the documents in general terms, noting that Cole allowed AIG to review his reports before submitting them to federal authorities.
“They reveal what appears to be a level of deference to AIG’s management one would not expect to see from someone tasked as AIG’s ‘independent monitor,’” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Democrats said the criticisms are overblown. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said, for example, that Cole had no authority over credit default swaps — the financial instrument that contributed to AIG’s problems — because Cole handled regulatory compliance and credit default swaps were unregulated at the time.
“I don’t think we should have guilt by association because someone tried to take on the challenges and help the situation,” Cardin said.
No Republican criticized Cole for another of his high-profile assignments, one that was far more political: his service as special counsel to the House ethics committee when, in the mid-1990s, the committee was investigating then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Cardin, who was in the House then, praised Cole's professionalism in the role.