Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pushing Out Justice

March 1, 2007

One of the most "important tenets" of a U.S. attorney's office is to never "mix politics with prosecutions." But it appears that the Justice Department has done just that, recently firing eight well-respected U.S. attorneys and replacing them with partisan Bush administration loyalists. Many of these ousted prosecutors were working on high-profile corruption cases and received high marks on their job evaluations by the Justice Department. All appear to be "victim[s] of strong-arm political pressure from Washington," pushed out to make room for political cronies. At each turn, Justice Department officials have made up different excuses for the firings, from insisting that the prosecutors stepped down on their own to claiming that they were fired for "performance-related" reasons. None of these charges have stood up. A little-noticed provision in the Patriot Act allows these "interim" Bush appointees to serve indefinitely, without Senate approval. Conservative senators are now blocking a repeal of this measure. "I think Americans need to have full confidence that their federal prosecutors are above politics," said one of the ousted prosecutors, David Iglesias, highlighting why it is necessary for all of these Bush appointees to be held up to public scrutiny.

On Feb. 6, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that six U.S. attorneys were fired in Dec. 2006 for "performance-related" reasons. But in reality, these prosecutors were highly respected in their fields and received praise in job evaluations from the Justice Department shortly before they were told to resign. Similarly, at least four of the fired prosecutors said that Michael Battle, head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, never cited performance issues -- or gave any reason at all -- as the reason for their forced resignations. John McKay, the former U.S. attorney in Washington, recounted his conversation with Battle: "When I was composed enough to ask him why [I was being fired], he told me he couldn't answer any of my questions. ... He said nothing about performance issues or management or anything else." In fact, five of these prosecutors had positive job reviews. Just months before firing him, Battle sent McKay a "congratulatory letter for the laudatory report issued by the Justice Department audit team." Daniel Bogden, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada, "was described in his last job performance evaluation in 2003 as being a 'capable' leader who was highly regarded by the federal judiciary and investigators." Former U.S. attorney in California Carol Lam was "'well respected' by law enforcement officials, judges and her staff" in her 2005 evaluation. Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney in Arizona, was "described as being respected by his staff, federal investigators, judges and Native American leaders for 'his integrity, professionalism and competence.'" A Justice Department official also confirmed that Iglesias "received a positive evaluation last year."

After media reports began revealing that the U.S. attorneys were all given positive job evaluations, the Justice Department changed its excuse for the forced resignations, claiming that the attorneys were rogue prosecutors. "The reviews don't take into account whether the U.S. attorneys carried out departmental priorities," said one official. But as the New York Times noted, "each case report included a statement that each of the ousted prosecutors had established strategic goals set by the Justice Department in high priority areas like counterterrorism, narcotics and gun violence." Bogden said that his office had "done more gun cases, drug cases, gang cases, child exploitation cases, identity theft cases than any office has done in any five year period of time." A Justice Department review of Iglesias's job performance, dated Nov. 2005, concluded that he had a strategic plan that "complied with the department's priorities."

What the ousted prosecutors all have in common -- in addition to strong job evaluations -- is that they were "overseeing significant public-corruption investigations at the time they were asked to leave. Four of the probes target Republican politicians or their supporters." In the case that has received the most attention, Lam oversaw the public corruption case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, which resulted in his guilty plea and the indictments of a defense contractor and a former CIA official. With Lam's departure, it is unclear whether her successor will continue to pursue the corruption investigation. Similarly, Charlton's office was "investigating charges involving land deals and influence peddling against Republican Congressman Rick Renzi (R-AZ)," Bogden was "looking into campaign law violations by at least one member of the state's Congressional delegation," and Cummins was investigating Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R). Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. attorney in California, wasn't pursuing public corruption, but as Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Scott Lilly notes, he likely "stepped on the toes of a number of their [the Bush administration's] most generous contributors with his high profile investigations of back-dated stock options given to numerous executives in major corporations." Iglesias, who was pursuing a federal probe of a kickback scheme, believes he was fired because he "refused to speed up an indictment of local Democrats a month before November's congressional elections." Iglesias "said that two members of Congress called separately in mid-October" and "appeared eager...for an indictment to be issued before the elections in order to benefit the Republicans." "I believe that because I didn't play ball, so to speak, I was asked to resign," Iglesias noted.

The Justice Department continues to insist that the firings weren't political. "I would never, ever make a change in the United States attorney position for political reasons," said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart," said McNulty. But the Justice Department itself has admitted that at least one of the U.S. attorneys -- H.E. "Bud" Cummings in Arkansas -- was pushed out to make way for Bush loyalist Timothy Griffin, the former research director at the Republican National Committee and a "37-year-old protege" of Karl Rove. According to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AK), the Justice Department originally tried to claim that Cummins resigned on his own, which McNulty later admitted was untrue. Salon notes, "Some former Justice Department officials say they believe the administration's moves are a politically driven power grab -- aimed not only at a tighter grip on policy from Washington, but also at creating openings with which to reward their friends and build up a bench of conservative loyalists positioned to serve in powerful posts in future administrations." Similarly, Sen. John Ensign (R-AZ) was reportedly "told that the decision to remove U.S. attorneys, primarily in the West, was part of a plan to 'give somebody else that experience' to build up the back bench of Republicans by giving them high-profile jobs." Since last March, the administration has named nine U.S. attorneys -- including Griffin -- with Bush administration ties. These appointees include a former counselor to Gonzales and a protege of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

CLAIM #5 -- IT WASN'T DONE TO AVOID CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT: In 2005, a member of Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) staff slipped into the Patriot Act a little-noticed provision that allows the attorney general to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period of time. Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure "that would take away the executive branch's unchecked power on U.S. attorney appointments" and restore the system to the pre-2005 rules. It would allow the attorney general "to appoint a replacement for 120 days, with the district court then stepping in and appointing a new interim U.S. attorney if the Senate has not approved a permanent one." Conservatives are now blocking the full Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Mark Pryor (D-AR). Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Linda Sanchez (D-CA) requested an analysis from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) into whether previous administrations have also fired prosecutors without justification, but the Justice Department has refused to cooperate with the investigation, according to the CRS analyst. Today, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on issuing subpoenas to four of the eight dismissed prosecutors and the Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, "will send letters to those fired before voting next week on compelling their testimony." "In order to get the full picture of why these U.S. attorneys were fired, we need to hear from the Justice Department and the U.S. attorneys themselves," said Conyers.

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