Tuesday, March 13, 2007
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 that he had received complaints that some prosecutors had not energetically pursued voter-fraud investigations, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Gonzales approved the idea of firing a smaller group of U.S. attorneys shortly after taking office in February 2005. The Gonzales aide in charge of the dismissals — his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson — resigned yesterday, officials said, after acknowledging that he did not tell 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 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.
Administration officials have repeatedly portrayed the firings as a routine personnel matter, designed primarily to rid the department of a handful of poor performers.
But the documents and interviews indicate that the idea for the firings originated at least two years ago, when then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers suggested to Sampson in February 2005 that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced. Miers resigned this January.
Gonzales immediately rejected that idea as impractical and disruptive, Justice officials said, but over the next 22 months Sampson orchestrated more limited dismissals.
‘Mitigating the shock’
"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," Sampson wrote to Miers in January 2006. A "limited number of U.S. attorneys could be targeted for removal and replacement, mitigating the shock to the system that would result from an across the board firing."
Administration officials say they are braced for a new round of criticism today from lawmakers who may feel misled by testimony in recent weeks from Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general. Several Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), have asked for Gonzales's resignation in recent days.
Perino said that "it doesn't appear the president was told about a list nor shown a list" of U.S. attorneys at any point in the discussions. She said White House political adviser Karl Rove had an early conversation with Miers about the idea of firing all chief prosecutors and did not think it was wise.
Bush mentioned complaints about voter-fraud investigations to Gonzales in a conversation in October 2006, Perino said. Gonzales does not recall the conversation, Justice Department officials said.
Bush "believes informally he may have mentioned it to the AG during the meeting discussing other matters," Perino said. "White House officials including the president did not direct DOJ to take any specific action with regards to any specific U.S. attorney."
Rove and other White House officials also forwarded complaints that U.S. attorneys were not doing enough to prosecute voter fraud.
Since the 2000 election ended in dispute in Florida, Republicans at the national and local levels have repeatedly raised concerns about possible voter fraud, alleging that convicted felons and other ineligible voters have been permitted to cast ballots to the benefit of Democrats.
The documents show that Sampson sent an e-mail to Miers in March 2005 ranking all 93 U.S. attorneys. Strong performers "exhibited loyalty" to the administration; low performers were "weak U.S. attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc." A third group merited no opinion.
At least a dozen prosecutors were on a "target list" to be fired at one time or another, the e-mails show.
The e-mails also show that Rove was interested in the appointment of a former colleague, Tim Griffin, as an Arkansas prosecutor. Sampson wrote in one e-mail that "getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc."
Only three of the fired given low ratings
Only three of those eventually fired were given low rankings: Margaret Chiara in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bud Cummins in Little Rock and Carol S. Lam in San Diego. Two were given strong evaluations: David C. Iglesias in Albuquerque, who has alleged political interference from GOP lawmakers, and Kevin V. Ryan in San Francisco, whose firing has generated few complaints because of widespread management and morale problems in his office.
Ten months later, in January 2006, Sampson sent to the White House the first list of seven potential candidates for dismissal, including four who were dismissed at year's end: Chiara, Cummins, Lam and Ryan. The list also recommended Griffin and other replacements, most of whom were edited from the documents viewed by The Post.
In September, Sampson produced another list of firing candidates, telling the White House that Cummins was "in the process of being pushed out" and providing the names of eight others whom "we should consider pushing out." Five of the candidates on that list were fired in December; three others were spared.
Iglesias, the New Mexico prosecutor, was not on the list in September. Justice officials said Sampson added Iglesias in October, based in part on complaints from Sen. Pete V. Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans that he was not prosecuting enough voter-fraud cases.
Sampson also strongly urged bypassing Congress in naming replacements, using a little-known power slipped into the renewal of the USA Patriot Act in March 2006 that allows the attorney general to name interim replacements without Senate confirmation.
"I am only in favor of executing on a plan to push some USAs out if we really are ready and willing to put in the time necessary to select candidates and get them appointed," Sampson wrote in a Sept. 17, 2006, memo to Miers. "It will be counterproductive to DOJ operations if we push USAs out and then don't have replacements ready to roll immediately.
"I strongly recommend that as a matter of administration, we utilize the new statutory provisions that authorize the AG to make USA appointments." By avoiding Senate confirmation, Sampson added, "we can give far less deference to home state senators and thereby get 1.) our preferred person appointed and 2.) do it far faster and more efficiently at less political costs to the White House."
Miers thanked Sampson for the idea. "Kyle thanks for this. I have not forgotten I need to follow up on the info. But things have been crazy," she wrote.
One e-mail from Miers's deputy, William Kelley, on the day of the Dec. 7 firings said Domenici's chief of staff "is happy as a clam" about Iglesias. Sampson wrote in an e-mail a week later: "Domenici is going to send over names tomorrow (not even waiting for Iglesias's body to cool)."
Talking about bypassing Democratic senators
The documents also provide new details about the case of Griffin, a former Rove aide and Republican National Committee researcher who was named interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock in December.
E-mails show that Justice officials discussed bypassing the two Democratic senators in Arkansas, who normally would have had input into the appointment, as early as last August. By mid-December, Sampson was suggesting that Gonzales exercise his newfound appointment authority to put Griffin in place until the end of Bush's term.
"There is some risk that we'll lose the authority, but if we don't ever exercise it then what's the point of having it?" Sampson wrote to a White House aide. "(I'm not 100 percent sure that Tim was the guy on which to test drive this authority, but know that getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.)."