March 13, 2007

Harriet Miers Wanted All US Attorneys Fired

The start of the process that eventually saw seven US Attorneys fired last December (and another earlier) began with Harriet Miers, the White House counsel who had briefly been a Supreme Court nominee, according to the Washington Post. Unhappy with a lack of progress in fighting voter fraud, Miers requested through aides that Alberto Gonzales fire all 93 prosecutors at once after the 2004 elections, a move the Attorney General considered too disruptive:

The White House suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all 93 U.S. attorneys, a proposal that eventually resulted in the dismissals of eight prosecutors last year, according to e-mails and internal documents that the administration will provide to Congress today.

The dismissals took place after President Bush told Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in October that he had received complaints that some prosecutors had not energetically pursued voter-fraud investigations, according to a White House spokeswoman.

Gonzales approved the idea of firing a smaller group of U.S. attorneys shortly after taking office in February 2005. The aide in charge of the dismissals -- his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson -- resigned yesterday, officials said, after acknowledging that he did not tell key Justice officials about the extent of his communications with the White House, leading them to provide incomplete information to Congress.

Lawmakers requested the documents as part of an investigation into whether the firings were politically motivated. While it is unclear whether the documents, which were reviewed yesterday by The Washington Post, will answer Congress's questions, they show that the White House and other administration officials were more closely involved in the dismissals, and at a much earlier date, than they have previously acknowledged.

Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7 and another was fired months earlier, with little explanation from the Justice Department. Several former prosecutors have since alleged intimidation, including improper telephone calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and have alleged threats of retaliation by a Justice Department official.

Sampson eventually coordinated with Miers on the limited dismissals, but that happened in January 2006, almost a year before the bulk of the firings. Sampson created a list of prosecutors ranked by effectiveness and loyalty to White House initiatives, and broken into three groups: high, low, and no opinion. Oddly, the terminated prosecutors came from both the high- and low-ranked groups. Three of the seven came from the bottom tier, but two of them -- David Iglesias and Kevin Ryan. Iglesias has alleged political interference by Pete Domenici and other unnamed Republican legislators, while Ryan's staff is apparently delighted to see him leave.

One question that these memos raise is why it took so long to dismiss these prosecutors if they were performing so badly. Sampson compiled that ranking list two years ago this month. The effort seemed to be back-burnered until September of last year, when new rules on appointment of interim federal prosecutors made their way through Congress as part of a homeland-security bill. The new rules allow Justice and the White House to forego Senate approval on interim appointments, and the terminations commenced almost immediately after the law went into effect.

If competence and performance were the reasons for the terminations, why did Justice wait almost two years to do anything about it?

Sampson's memos indicate that Domenici had exercised more political pressure than he has previously admitted in getting Iglesias canned. Iglesias -- ranked among the high-performing group in March 2005 -- had not acted with enough alacrity in charging Democrats in New Mexico for corruption, especially with the midterm elections approaching. Domenici called him to inquire about the status, a call he said was merely informative and not intended to pressure Iglesias. Yet one of Miers' aides noted in one memo that Domenici's chief of staff "is [as] happy as a clam" at Iglesias' dismissal. In another memo a week later, Sampson replied that Domenici would forward names for a replacement the next day, because the Senator was "not even waiting for Iglesias's body to cool".

Again, prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the President, and as with any other political appointment, they can be asked to leave when the pleasure becomes all theirs. However, prosecutors have tremendous power and should be free of undue political pressure. Just as with any other prosecutors, they represent all of the People and have a responsibility to ensure that filing charges serves the cause of justice, and not just indict people to pump up their resumés. Otherwise, trust in the system of justice breaks down. This situation looks suspiciously like some people forgot that basic premise.


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