Press Picks Through Latest ‘Document Dump’ on Firing of U.S. Attorneys

By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press

With Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ job hanging by a thread, the Department of Justice on M Onday night released its latest large body of documents pertaining to the recent firing of at least eight U.S. attorneys.

ABC was first to report on what it found in a quick look: “New e-mails released this evening by the Justice Department reveal the depth of White House involvement in the discussions to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year. The thousands of pages of e-mails suggest the White House was involved in the plan from the beginning.

“The e-mails detail conversations about attorneys targeted for dismissal. There are no e-mails from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who reportedly does not use e-mail, though the Justice Department says messages show some indication that Gonzales’ former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, kept the attorney general apprised.”

The Washington Post on Tuesday, meanwhile, reports that U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald was ranked among prosecutors who had “not distinguished themselves” on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005. He was in the midst of leading the Libby/CIA leak investigation at that time.

The ranking placed Fitzgerald below “strong U.S. Attorneys . . . who exhibited loyalty” to the White House but above “weak U.S. Attorneys who . . . chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.,” according to Justice documents, the Post reported.

Mary Jo White, who supervised Fitzgerald when she served as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, told the Post that ranking Fitzgerald as a middling prosecutor “lacks total credibility across the board….He is probably the best prosecutor in the nation, certainly one of them. It casts total doubt on the whole process. It’s kind of the icing on the cake.”

The Associated Press report on Tuesday follows.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales clung to his job as documents his Justice Department sent to Congress spelled out fears in the Bush administration that the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys might not stand up to scrutiny.

Particularly worrisome, according to some references in the 3,000 pages of e-mails and other material released late Monday, was the prospect of former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins testifying before Congress.

”I don’t think he should,” Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, wrote in a Feb. 1 e-mail. ”How would he answer: Did you resign voluntarily? Who told you? What did they say?”

Cummins was relieved as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., and replaced by Tim Griffin, a former assistant to top White House aide Karl Rove.

In his e-mail to colleagues, Sampson listed more questions that Cummins might have to answer if he were to testify to Congress: ”Did you ever talk to Tim Griffin about his becoming U.S. attorney? What did Griffin say? Did Griffin ever talk about being AG appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation? Were you asked to resign because you were underperforming? If not, then why?”

The documents that Congress will focus on in the coming days show that Gonzales was unhappy with how Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty explained the firings to the Senate Judiciary Committee in early February.

”The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning,” Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who was traveling with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail. ”He also thought some of the DAG’s statements were inaccurate.”

In a statement Monday night, Roehrkasse said he was referring to Gonzales’ concerns over the firing of Bud Cummins in Little Rock, who he believed was dismissed because of performance issues. At the hearing, McNulty indicated Cummins was being replaced by a political ally.

Neither of the two most senior Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are stepping forward to endorse Gonzales, but likewise are not calling for his ouster. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said he will reserve judgment until he gets all the facts. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has not given interviews on the subject, his spokesman said.

The White House still offered support for Gonzales on Monday, but spokesman Tony Snow said he didn’t know whether the embattled attorney general had contained the political damage. Snow said the White House hopes Gonzales will stay.

Inevitably, speculation turned to who might succeed him. Possible candidates include White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein, federal appeals judge Laurence Silberman and PepsiCo attorney Larry Thompson, who was the government’s highest ranking black law enforcement official when he was deputy attorney general during Bush’s first term.

Former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay said Tuesday the scandal ”is just a taste of what’s goingt to be like for the next two years.”

”And the Bush amdinistration sort of showed their weakenss when they got rid of Don Rumseld,” the Texan said on NBC’s ”Today” show. ”… This is a made up scandal. There is no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever. … They ought to be fighting back.”

Among the e-mails released Monday was one McNulty received on Feb. 1 from Margaret Chiara, the U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich.

”Why have I been asked to resign?” she asked.

Early this month, she wrote McNulty again, saying that ”I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal. It is in our mutual interest to retract this erroneous explanation.”

She added: ”Politics may not be a pleasant reason but the truth is compelling.”

Chiara asked McNulty to ”endorse or otherwise encourage my selection” as assistant director at the Justice Department’s National Advocacy Center, which trains federal, state and local prosecutors.

In one uncomfortable exchange with Chiara, McNulty aide Mike Elston said, ”our only choice is to continue to be truthful about this entire matter.”

”The word performance obviously has not set well with you and your colleagues,” Elston wrote. ”By that word we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management/leadership that we felt were important to the Department’s effectiveness.”

The e-mails provide rich detail on what got some of the U.S. attorneys in trouble with their overseers in Washington.

John McKay, the prosecutor based in Seattle, circulated an Aug. 30, 2006, letter to McNulty that blasted the Justice Department for delays in creating a database allowing law enforcement to share information on terror cases. The letter was sent to at least some U.S. attorneys.

In an e-mail to McNulty, Chuck Rosenberg, the prosecutor based in Alexandria, Va., said that other U.S. attorneys ”are chagrined and embarrassed” over McKay’s letter and ”are probably happy to let him take the heat.”

In the run-up to the firings, McNulty questioned the dismissal of U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in Nevada. ‘I’m a little skittish about Bogden,” McNulty wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to Sampson. ”He has been with DOJ since 1990 and, at age 50, has never had a job outside government.”

Still, McNulty concluded: ”I’ll admit have not looked at his district’s performance. Sorry to be raising this again/now; it was just on my mind last night and this morning.”

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