WASHINGTON—The Justice Department last year considered firing two U.S. attorneys in Florida and Colorado, states where allegations of voter fraud and countercharges of voter intimidation have flown in recent years, congressional investigators have learned.
That brings to nine the number of battleground election states where the Bush administration set out to replace some of the nation's top prosecutors. In at least seven states, it now appears, U.S. attorneys were fired or considered for firing as Republicans in those states urged investigations or prosecutions of alleged Democratic voter fraud.
The two prosecutors who were targeted were Gregory Miller, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Florida in Tallahassee, and Bill Leone, the former acting U.S. attorney for Colorado.
Miller appeared on multiple target lists for possible firing from early 2005 through last November, according to a senior congressional aide familiar with Justice Department documents. Miller kept his job.
The congressional aide spoke to McClatchy Newspapers on condition of anonymity because the documents haven't been made public. The Justice Department is allowing congressional investigators only to inspect the documents, not make photocopies or take notes.
The Justice Department declined to discuss either case.
In a brief telephone interview, Miller said he had no inkling that he'd been considered for firing.
"You're telling me something I didn't know," Miller said. "I never heard of any concerns from the administration."
Miller was a career federal prosecutor who'd served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an interim U.S. attorney. President Bush nominated him for the permanent U.S. attorney position in early 2002. Last fall, the Justice Department awarded Miller and his office with a "superior performance in public service" award for its work in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Miller said the department never singled him out for his office's handling of any controversial case, including voter fraud. "I've never been given direction as to my handling of voter fraud," he added. "I've never heard anything from Washington about my performance in that regard."
Asked whether activists outside Washington had asked his office to look into any controversial voter fraud allegations, he declined to comment, saying Justice Department policy prohibits prosecutors from commenting on closed or ongoing cases.
Leone left his job in August 2006 after he was passed over for the permanent post and the Senate confirmed his replacement. That was just a few months before the Justice Department and the White House settled on a final list of prosecutors whose resignations were requested en masse.
It wasn't immediately clear why Miller or Leone were placed on lists kept by Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, or why Miller was spared. Sampson has resigned over the firings controversy.
"We will not publicly confirm whether a particular U.S. attorney may or may not have been on one of Kyle Sampson's lists," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd, who said the lists represented only Sampson's thoughts during a consultation process.
"Whether they are on any list or not, U.S. attorneys currently serving enjoy the full confidence and support of the attorney general and Department of Justice."
Increasingly, the Democrats leading congressional inquiries into last year's ouster of at least nine U.S. attorneys are focusing on whether Republican pressure to bring voter fraud prosecutions against Democrats influenced the firings.
Democratic lawmakers say pushing voter fraud investigations prior to elections if such fraud doesn't exist can discredit candidates and intimidate voters, affecting results.
The White House and Gonzales have maintained that the firings were appropriate and not motivated by political pressure or retaliation.
Leone, a Republican assistant U.S. attorney who was appointed the top prosecutor in Colorado on an interim basis in December 2004, said in a telephone interview that he was never asked to step aside, nor did he know he was targeted for firing. He said he'd expressed interest in becoming the permanent U.S. attorney, but was never told why he was passed over.
"The whole process was a black box even when you're inside," he said.
Leone had led the office's corporate fraud investigation into Qwest Communications, which resulted in insider trading convictions of two top officials, but he was criticized for falling short of expectations.
Leone, who described himself as an "independent-minded U.S. attorney," said he was always aware that he wasn't nominated by the president. "I always used to say to people I'm not the president's man. My assumption was all along I would be replaced by somebody who had more political stroke. I understand that's what happened."
His replacement was Troy Eid, a former lawyer with the Washington-based lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig, which at one time had employed convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Eid had little courtroom experience and was a member of the conservative Federalist Society, Leone said.
Eid's office didn't return calls requesting comment.
Fired U.S. attorneys in New Mexico and Washington state have said local Republicans pressured them to prosecute voter fraud cases, but they didn't believe that the cases were solid.
Congress has since learned that the White House and Justice Department were also pursuing voter fraud inquiries just weeks before last November's election in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Mexico and were raising concerns about Nevada.
A U.S. attorney in Wisconsin and another in Scranton, Pa., were considered for firing but were retained. Both had the support of powerful Republican lawmakers.
Nevada's U.S. attorney was fired last year.
A U.S. attorney in Minnesota, who disagreed with the Justice Department on a case involving voting rolls, was asked to resign early last year.
Other fired U.S. attorneys served in Arizona, Arkansas, Michigan and California.
(Tish Wells contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007