March 3, 2007

White House: Prosecutors Did Not Follow Priorities

The termination of seven US Attorneys resulted from a lack of performance to the priorities of the Bush administration and at least in one case was prompted by a complaint from a Republican Senator regarding that issue. Sources within the Department of Justice made clear that the political appointees fell out of favor when they did not meet the policy goals of the White House on immigrations and firearms, among other issues:

The White House approved the firings of seven U.S. attorneys late last year after senior Justice Department officials identified the prosecutors they believed were not doing enough to carry out President Bush's policies on immigration, firearms and other issues, White House and Justice Department officials said yesterday.

The list of prosecutors was assembled last fall, based largely on complaints from members of Congress, law enforcement officials and career Justice Department lawyers, administration officials said.

One of the complaints came from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who specifically raised concerns with the Justice Department last fall about the performance of then-U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, according to administration officials and Domenici's office.

Iglesias has alleged that two unnamed New Mexico lawmakers pressured him in October to speed up the indictments of Democrats before the elections. Domenici has declined to comment on that allegation.

Since the mass firings were carried out three months ago, Justice Department officials have consistently portrayed them as personnel decisions based on the prosecutors' "performance-related" problems. But, yesterday, officials acknowledged that the ousters were based primarily on the administration's unhappiness with the prosecutors' policy decisions and revealed the White House's role in the matter.

"At the end of the day, this was a decision to pick the prosecutors we felt would most effectively carry out the department's policies and priorities in the last two years," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

This makes more sense, and is perfectly legitimate. They are political appointees, and they serve at the pleasure of the President. If they are ignoring the administration's priorities, then these US Attorneys have to understand that they risk their further employment.

However, the White House once again has showed that it has some deficiencies in communication. It could have gotten ahead of this story by announcing their reasons for replacing these prosecutors in the beginning of the effort. The Bush team would have won some kudos if they stated openly (and honestly) that they wanted to pursue immigration cases more aggressively, and so had moved to replace US Attorneys who did not share their enthusiasm for this task.

The silence instead helped feed the notion that another kind of politics was in play. Rumors have arisen that the prosecutors fired would not play ball by investigating Democrats for allegations of corruption, with the clear implication that the purported charges had no merit. In the absence of communication from the White House, the sudden departure of almost 10% of the US Attorneys looked suspicious on some level, and that rumor gained strength. If in fact it were true, it would be a significant abuse of power.

We have less than two years left in this administration. It's probably too late to expect them to improve their communication skills, but the need still demonstrates itself.


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