A Q&A for the U.S. Attorneys saga

McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2007 

McClatchy reporters Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev have been following the U.S. attorneys saga since early this year, and they've repeatedly been the first to report key developments in the case. Here they answer questions submitted by McClatchy readers. Some questions were edited for clarity.

Q: Why does everyone want to question Rove et. al.? The pattern has been set. It would be a continual litany of "I don't remember" or "I don't recall," and nothing would be learned. The only way to prove anything would be to get the e-mails, etc., and the Department of Justice and White House will not give those up. (From British Columbia)

A: Democrats want to question White House political adviser Karl Rove because, ultimately, they suspect his involvement in every administration move with political ramifications. It's also because no one at Justice has been able to explain the firings satisfactorily, which feeds the theory that the moves were conceived in the White House. Yes, the White House has held off on allowing his testimony and turning over e-mails, but if the battle goes to court that could change.

Q: Why were at least two of the prosecutors fired for "low immigration stats" (Carol Lam and David Iglesias) when Bush is attempting to force Congress to legalize illegal immigration? How does the DOJ explain this? (From Central Ohio)

A: We're not sure Carol Lam and David Iglesias were fired for low immigration stats. After the controversy broke, the Justice Department put those criticisms and others out as contributing factors, to counter allegations that Lam and Iglesias were removed for investigating Republican corruption or for failing to charge Democrats with voter fraud. As for Bush's stance on immigration, it's true that he favors more liberal policies than many in the Republican Party, but his official stance does not include lax border enforcement.

Q: Once Vice President Cheney and Rove are no longer in control of the executive branch, what can be done - legally - to undo the abuse of civil service procedures by (former White House liaison Monica) Goodling et al. in hiring assistant U.S. attorneys and other career employees at DOJ?

A: That's a good question. On the face of it, it seems unlikely a bureaucrat would be removed once he or she was on the job, barring a showing of misconduct or incompetence. But some of those questionable hires may find their performances scrutinized by future administrations. And the Justice Department has said the controversy has prompted internal reforms eliminating the inappropriate application of partisan tests to career hires.

Q: I cannot understand why no one seems responsible for placing the 9 (U.S. attorneys') names on the list. It would seem that there would be a clearly defined procedure for such a huge undertaking as firing or replacing 9 US AGs. It certainly sounds like incompetence, or maybe it was a real, well-developed plan. We need to hear from those involved. What does the White House know? If they know and were participants, they need to be punished for lying and obstruction of justice.

A: The Justice Department's inability to explain exactly who put which names on the list and why is why this probe still has legs.

Q: Do you think Monica Goodling did not really know what caging was when she mentioned it in her testimony? The caging issue seems to be one of the most damaging - and illegal - issues that she revealed. I believe (Rep. John) Conyers is following up with this. Do you think it'll get much traction?

A: For readers who aren't familiar with the background, there was an allegation in Florida that the Republican Party had used a direct mail technique to try to identify and bump thousands of minorities who might vote Democratic from the rolls if they failed to update their addresses or were serving in the military. The allegations involved Tim Griffin, a GOP operative who later was named interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., and resigned earlier this month. Republicans acknowledged that in 2004 they sent mail marked "do not forward" to various addresses but maintain they were researching voter fraud and did not use the data to remove voters. It doesn't seem as if the "caging" controversy tops Democrats' inquiry into the possible politicization of the Justice Department unless new evidence surfaces.

Q: Former U.S. Attorney Black in Guam was clearly fired at the behest of Abramoff. Will his dismissal be reviewed in light of the other firings?

A: When the controversy over the firings began, a handful of House Democrats, who'd previously looked into the replacement of longtime interim U.S. Attorney Fred Black in Guam in 2002, immediately drew a connection between the two and urged their colleagues to open a new inquiry. So far, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees haven't shown much interest in revisiting Black's replacement. Perhaps that's because Black was an interim appointment and not Bush's own choice. Also, an inspector general's report last year concluded that although since-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff wanted Black out of office, Abramoff was not responsible for Black's ouster.

Q: Much has been made of the 8 attorneys who were allegedly fired for FAILING to pursue politically motivated cases. The corollary is that the remaining 80-odd prosecutors were performing satisfactorily, presumably in part because of their willingness to toe the administration line. Has anyone attempted to review cases in those jurisdictions for potential politically-motivated wrongdoing by prosecutors who still have their jobs?

A: The controversy had stirred up suspicions in many states where prosecutors either didn't land on the firing lists or were targeted but ultimately remained on the job. Several of them are expected to be questioned, but as far as the formal investigations go, neither the congressional probes nor the internal Justice Department investigations have gone district by district to look through prosecutors' official acts as far as we know.

Q: It is my understanding that the change to the interim appointment of federal prosecutors was "slipped in" to the Patriot Act without Congress or the pertinent committee member's knowledge. Last I heard, a congressional staffer slipped the passage in as a favor to the White House. Was this staffer identified? And why do we hear so little about this apparent bleed-over between the branches of government? Is the Senate embarrassed? (From Augusta, GA)

A: It is true that the Justice Department's then-congressional liaison, William Moschella, got a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brett Tolman, to include a change in the USA Patriot Act reauthorization. That measure, which became law in early 2006, allowed the Justice Department to evade the Senate confirmation process by allowing interim U.S. attorneys to stay in office indefinitely. It's not as simple as saying it was done without key congressional members' knowledge. Some on the committee, then-chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., knew the Justice Department wanted to limit federal judges' ability to choose interim prosecutors, but didn't understand the full implications of the change. Tolman is now Utah's U.S. attorney and Moschella got a promotion in the Justice Department. It's fair to say the senators were more than embarrassed - many felt tricked and were angry. Congress has since reversed the changes, and interim U.S. attorneys installed under the loophole now have a time limit on their jobs.

Q: Why is the general inquiry into the U.S. attorneys issue proceeding so slowly? Or is it actually proceeding as quickly as it can, and I'm just naive for expecting greater urgency and speed? Why no subpoenas yet? I saw that Conyers said that Congress will have to insist on "some process" after about two weeks? Why two weeks? Why not now? (From Deer Island, OR)

A: Since you wrote, Congress has subpoenaed the White House for relevant documents and subpoenaed testimony from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor. Lawmakers have not subpoenaed testimony from Rove or other current White House aides but have suggested things are headed in that direction. Many congressional Republicans have accused Democrats of dragging out the probe for political gain. At the same time, congressional investigators have not been idle these past several months. They have gone through more than 7,000 pages of Justice Department documents and conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Justice officials and U.S attorneys.

Q: I only saw clips and parts of transcripts of Goodling's testimony, so maybe this reflects that I'm missing something. If so, please feel free to ignore. But when I saw Goodling acknowledge that she'd inappropriately used political criteria in hiring or reviewing performance (whichever it was, if only one), I sort of wanted to teleport myself to the scene and ask her what her supervisor - whoever that was - told her about the propriety of that. She has a boss, right, and her boss reviews her performance and goes over with her what she's supposed to do, right? So who was responsible for monitoring and checking her performance? (From Idaho)

A: The Justice Department's former White House liaison Monica Goodling reported to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who resigned because of the firings controversy.

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