[Vision2020] LA Times: Attorneys assessed long before firings

Art Deco deco at moscow.com
Sat Apr 14 11:45:15 PDT 2007


Attorneys assessed long before firings
Bush officials looked at insiders to take the prosecutor jobs, new documents show.
By Richard A. Serrano
Times Staff Writer

April 14, 2007

WASHINGTON — Long before they fired a group of U.S. attorneys, senior White House and Justice Department officials were already discussing some politically connected insiders for their replacements, documents released Friday show.

The documents, turned over to congressional investigators in a widening probe of the firings, undercut earlier claims that the prosecutors were terminated for purely performance reasons.

They also show that the administration prized attorneys who shared its Republican ideology. For instance, the personnel charts of some prosecutors note their membership in the conservative Federalist Society.

Starting in January of last year — 11 months before most of the terminations were carried out — Justice Department officials were deep in confidential discussions with the White House over who might get the prized political appointments.

"I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys," D. Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, wrote in a January 2006 memo to then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and her deputy, William Kelley.

Sampson then listed four candidates to replace them: Dan Levin, a former senior Justice Department and White House official; Jeffrey A. Taylor, now the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C.; Deborah J. Rhodes, now the top prosecutor for the Southern District of Alabama; and Rachel Brand, currently head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.

Under Sampson's plan, Levin was mentioned to replace Kevin Ryan, who was fired as the U.S. attorney in San Francisco; Taylor or Rhodes to take over for Carol C. Lam, who was terminated in San Diego; and Brand to succeed Margaret M. Chiara, who was fired in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Sampson also listed U.S. Atty. H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Little Rock, Ark., to be terminated and replaced by Timothy Griffin, a protege of White House political advisor Karl Rove.

"Please let me know how you would like to proceed," he added. "The first steps, I think, would be (1) to agree on the target list of U.S. attorneys and (2) ask EOUSA [their supervisors] to begin quietly calling them to ascertain their intentions for continued service, indicating to them that they might want to consider looking for other employment."

Eight prosecutors were eventually fired — Cummins last summer and seven others in December.

Officials first insisted that the firings were based solely on poor performance evaluations, although they acknowledged that Cummins was pushed aside to make way for Griffin.

But that stance has steadily drawn more questions from congressional Democrats, and the new documents, part of about 2,400 pages delivered to Capitol Hill on Friday, will probably bring more queries when Gonzales testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sampson's e-mail to Miers and Kelley appears to conflict with what Sampson said in his testimony to the committee last month. He denied that he had specific names in mind as replacements for the fired prosecutors.

"I personally did not," he told the committee.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the investigation in the Judiciary Committee, said the documents strongly suggested that the firings were politically driven. He said Gonzales would be questioned about whether the department already had replacements in line.

Earlier this year, the attorney general said he would never allow prosecutors to be removed for political reasons.

But Schumer said that "today makes clear that they did have a list of replacements. And that is extremely troubling, and it goes to the core of why certain attorneys were chosen to be fired."

Sampson's lawyer, Brad Berenson, said his client's testimony was "entirely accurate." He said that when the seven prosecutors were asked to step down in December, "no specific candidate had been selected to replace any of them, and Kyle had none in mind."

Berenson added that "some names had been tentatively suggested for discussion much earlier in the process, but by the time the decision to ask for the resignations was made, none had been chosen to serve as a replacement. Most, if all, had long since ceased even to be possibilities."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse echoed that assertion.

"The list," he said, "reflects Kyle Sampson's initial thoughts, not pre-selected candidates by the administration."

Sampson resigned in March.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill were not satisfied with the huge new pile of documents, which brought the total disclosure to about 6,000 pages.

"Today's documents were not a complete response to our subpoena request. I expect that the attorney general, as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, will be respectful of his obligations under the committee's subpoena and respond in full by Monday," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr.

E-mails show that as late as January, when the scandal was breaking, Justice Department officials were turning to congressional staff members for help with damage control.

In a Jan. 25 e-mail, Sampson noted that he and others were going to brief Schumer's legal counsel, adding that "he's a reasonable former [assistant prosecutor in Manhattan] who we hope to talk some sense into."

According to the e-mails, the White House sought to recruit Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to help defend against charges that Griffin was unqualified to become U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

"WH political reached out to Sen. Sessions and requested that he ask helpful questions to make clear that Tim Griffin is qualified to serve," wrote former Justice Department official Monica M. Goodling, who resigned last week after refusing to appear before Congress. "They requested that someone in our [Office of Legislative Affairs] call the senator's staff and make sure that we take advantage of the offer."

And as congressional Democrats continued to mount their investigation, Justice Department officials tried to find ways to explain their contention that the firings were justified.

"Yeah, I think our game plan is to try to lower the [political] temperature by explicating that when we said 'performance-related' we tended to mean disagreements over priorities or other policy differences or management shortcomings," Richard A. Hertling, acting assistant attorney general, said in a March 5 e-mail. "Rather than 'they were doing a bad job as prosecutors/lawyers,' " he said.

Hertling, aware that the fired U.S. attorneys were angry that they had been publicly besmirched even though they had received favorable job evaluations, added, "That may take the temperature of most of these former [U.S. attorneys] down a couple of notches."

Nevertheless, he conceded, "I think we are also going to admit mishandling the firings."

In another March 5 e-mail, Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos described in more detail the strategy for controlling news coverage and mollifying other U.S. attorneys: "Right now the coverage will be dominated by how qualified these folks were and their theories for their dismissals. We are trying to muddy the coverage up a bit by trying to put the focus on the process in which they were told. I suspect we are going to get to the point where DOJ has to say this anyway. First, it is true. Second, we are having morale problems with our other U.S. attorneys who understand the decision but think that these folks were not treated well in the process."

The firing that has drawn the greatest scrutiny is that of David C. Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, especially since Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) allegedly was eager to see indictments against Democrats in the state before last year's midterm elections.

One of the newly released documents was two pages of handwritten notes about the fired prosecutors that was attributed to Goodling. Under "Iglesias" there is a notation: "Domenici says he doesn't move cases."

There was no further explanation.

richard.serrano at latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.
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