Emails detail plans for firing U.S. attorneys

Ron Hutcheson, Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gives a press conference at the Department of Justice, March 13, 2007, in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Councill/MCT)

WASHINGTON - Deflecting calls to resign, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged Tuesday that he mishandled the firings of eight U.S. attorneys as new details emerged about the Bush administration's efforts to oust prosecutors who had fallen out of favor.

Internal memos between the Justice Department and the White House show that administration officials were determined to bypass Congress in selecting replacements for eight U.S. attorneys who were forced to resign. The memos include a five-step plan for executing the dismissals and dealing the anticipated political firestorm.

"We're a go for the US Atty plan," White House aide William Kelley notified the Justice Department on Dec. 4, three days before seven of the eight U.S. attorneys were told to step down. "WH leg, political, and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes."

"WH leg" refers to the White House legislative affairs office, which works closely with members of Congress.

Members of Congress have expressed outrage over the dismissals for a variety of reasons. Some suspect that the ousted prosecutors were fired as part of an effort to exert political influence over federal investigators. Others resent the administration's efforts to install new prosecutors without Senate confirmation hearings.

Still others accuse the Justice Department launching an unseemly smear campaign against the ousted prosecutors.

While U.S. attorneys are political appointees - all of the ousted prosecutors were appointed by Bush - they are supposed to carry out their duties without political interference. White House officials have acknowledged that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, served as a conduit for complaints about U.S. attorneys across the country.

"The attorney general has a responsibility to put up a fire wall to keep politics out of the Department of Justice," said former U.S. Attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins, who was forced out to make room for a Rove protege. "There are political people in politics who are an inherent part of the process. There is no place for them at the department of justice. When things like this happen it costs the department its credibility."

The internal administration documents, which were released by the House Judiciary Committee, show that Rove's office also arranged for two New Mexico Republicans to deliver their complaints about former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias directly to the Justice Department in June 2006

The two New Mexicans, Patrick Rogers and Mickey Barnett, have acknowledged that they were frustrated with Iglesias' handling of corruption allegations against Democrats.

"I have a person from New Mexico coming to town this week . . . He was heavily involved in the President's campaign's legal team," Scott Jennings, the Rove aide, said of Barnett in paving the way for his Justice Department meeting. In a follow-up e-mail, Jennings called the meeting a "sensitive" matter.

Meanwhile, the number of Democrats calling for Gonzales' resignation grew, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev; Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean; and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., piling on.

"This is the straw that has broken the camel's back," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Most Republicans stood by Gonzales publicly, but others said his support was eroding and that the scandal could be a turning point.

"I certainly don't have a lot of confidence in his leadership," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said he was "not yet" calling for a resignation but added, "I think I share the feelings of many Republican senators that this is a profoundly disappointing event."

In a hastily called press conference, Gonzales acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in the firings. But he would only concede that prosecutors should have been told about the reasons for their firings. He did not back down from his stance that the ousters were legitimate.

"All political appointees can be removed by the president of the United States for any reason," he said. "I stand by the decision, and I think it was the right decision."

Gonzales said he was unaware of the White House involvement in the dismissals.

Some of the ousted prosecutors were skeptical about Gonzales' claim that he didn't know the details of the firing plan and said they believed that prosecutors were removed for political reasons at the behest of the White House.

What's still not clear is why the prosecutors were targeted. The internal documents reveal extensive planning for the firings long before the White House and the Justice Department agreed on which prosecutors should go. Names seemed to be added and dropped from the target list for no obvious reason.

In 2005, then-White House counsel Harriet Miers proposed firing all 93 U.S. attorneys as part of a second-term house cleaning. Administration officials said Gonzales and Rove both rejected that idea.

At that point, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, started working on a scaled-back plan. In an e-mail to Miers in early 2005, Sampson recommended retaining "strong" U.S. attorneys "who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General."

He called for ousting "weak" appointees "who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc."

Sampson was forced to resign Monday after Justice Department officials blamed him for failing to keep Gonzales informed of the dismissal plan.

"We never had a discussion about where things stood," Gonzales told reporters. "What I knew was that there was an ongoing effort that was led by Mr. Sampson . . . to ascertain where we could make improvements in U.S. attorney performances around the country."

At least two of the U.S. attorneys who were later forced to step down, Iglesias in New Mexico and Paul Charlton of Arizona, were on Sampson's "retain" list in February 2005.

But by September of 2006 - after it became clear that Charlton had launched an investigation of Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz, - Sampson included the Arizona prosecutor on another list of U.S. attorneys "we now should consider pushing out."

Other memos and e-mails suggest a variety of reasons that individual prosecutors might have fallen out of favor.

In an e-mail dated May 11, 2006, Sampson urged the White House counsel's office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," who then the U.S. attorney for southern California. Earlier that morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's corruption investigation of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., had expanded to include another California Republican, Rep Jerry Lewis.

Cunningham is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence in Arizona. Lewis has not been charged with any crime. Lam was forced to resign.

In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he wants to know whether Lam was fired for the Cunningham case or because "she was about to investigate other people who were politically powerful." Lam declined to talk publicly about her dismissal.

Another e-mail suggests that Justice Department officials wanted Lam to be more aggressive on immigration enforcement.

Justice Department officials compiled complaints from a variety of sources. The head of a Justice Department anti-pornography task force complained that two prosecutors had failed to pursue obscenity cases.

White House officials say both Bush and Rove complained to Gonzales that the Justice Department hadn't been aggressively enough about pursuing voter fraud cases, but didn't mention any prosecutor by name.

Republican officials lodged similar complaints against Iglesias and U.S. attorney John McKay in Washington state, who was also forced out.

Iglesias said he still believed he was removed for resisting political pressure to go after Democrats before elections on voter fraud complaints and also on unrelated corruption charges. Some Republicans were unhappy that Iglesias didn't indict Democrats accused of corruption before the 2006 congressional elections. In 2004, he said he had heard rumblings that state Republicans were unhappy that he didn't pursue election fraud.

"Most of it was garbage, but we did look into more deeply into specific allegations and we could not find any evidence to indict," he said Tuesday.

Cummins, the ousted Arkansas prosecutor, also took issue with the voter fraud explanation.

"I would have serious doubts that anybody would fail to pursue voter fraud," Cummins said. "What they're responding to is party chairmen and activists, who from the beginning of time, go around paranoid that the other party is stealing the election."


(Kevin Hall contributed to this story from Merida, Mexico. Les Blumethal contributed from Washington.)





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