WASHINGTON — Responding to criticism of high-level vacancies in the Justice Department, President Bush tapped a federal judge Thursday to serve as the department's No. 2 official and selected four other nominees for top positions.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, on the job for just a week, recommended to the president that U.S. District Judge Mark R. Filip of Chicago serve as his deputy attorney general.
Later Thursday, the White House announced that it had nominated 16 men and women to fill vacancies in various U.S. Attorney's Offices and federal courts nationwide.
Three of the nominees would replace U.S. attorneys who were fired by the administration in the controversy that provoked the resignations of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Filip, 41, whom Bush nominated to the bench in 2003, has received praise from lawyers for his intelligence and "even-tempered demeanor."
In a report issued Thursday, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine notes that only three of the department's 11 assistant attorney general positions had been filled with Senate-confirmed lawyers as of Oct. 1. Twenty-three of the U.S. attorney positions are filled with interim or acting prosecutors, Fine says.
"Vacancies in many key leadership positions have resulted in delayed decision-making or lack of decision-making," Fine says in the report.
Fine also notes that the controversy over the prosecutors' firings and allegations that partisan politics had interfered with decision-making have damaged the Justice Department's reputation.
"The immediate challenge for the incoming attorney general and his team is to restore confidence in the integrity and independence of the department — with department employees, with Congress and with the public," he wrote.
Among those nominated for the ousted U.S. attorneys' jobs were:
_ Gregory A. Brower of Reno, Nev., a former Republican assemblyman and currently general counsel of the Government Printing Office, to replace Daniel G. Bogden, in Las Vegas.
_ Diane J. Humetewa, a Hopi Indian, who was counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and for Sen. John McCain, to replace Paul K. Charlton.
_ Joseph P. Russoniello, a criminal defense lawyer who was the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California in San Francisco and prosecuted the murderer of Congressman Leo Ryan, who was killed at the Peoples Temple massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, to replace Kevin Ryan.
In spite of the damage of the last year, Bush continues to defend his former attorney general, most recently praising him in Mukasey's formal swearing-in ceremony Wednesday.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino noted, however, that the administration had noticed the "negative effect" of the vacancies, saying "in fact, that is one thing that we agree with Senate Democrats about."
Perino said she was confident that the Senate would approve the nominees.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, remained noncommittal about the nominees' prospects, saying his committee needs to ensure that the spots are filled with "nominees who are committed to restoring the independence" of the department.
Filip, a Harvard Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor, has received glowing reviews from lawyers in Chicago in his short time on the bench. In a review of federal judges, the Chicago Council of Lawyers said Filip was "impartial" and "open-minded."
"His integrity is unquestioned," the council said.
Shortly after his nomination to the bench, Filip contributed $2,000 to Bush's campaign. The Center for Investigative Reporting, the California-based nonprofit group that first revealed his contribution, reported that Filip also had volunteered as a Republican election monitor in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
In an unusual recusal after his confirmation, Filip removed himself from handling a lawsuit that arose out of an election dispute involving then-independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He revealed that he'd signed a nominating petition for the candidate.
Mukasey called Filip "extraordinarily qualified" to be deputy attorney general, noting his experience as an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting�"public corruption, fraud and racketeering."
In addition to Filip, Bush nominated:
_ Grace C. Becker as the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights. Becker, 38, currently serves as the deputy assistant attorney general in the division. Underscoring the turmoil in the division, Becker would become its fourth chief during the Bush administration if the Senate confirms her. Two other lawyers have served months-long stints as acting chiefs.
In her role as one of several deputy chiefs since March 2006, Becker has overseen the division's housing section, which has drawn little criticism during the recent furor over politicization of the division. Previously, she served as a Defense Department lawyer and a federal prosecutor.
_ Nathan J. Hochman, a principal in a Los Angeles law firm, as assistant attorney general in charge of the tax division. Hochman, 43, previously was an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
_ Kevin J. O'Connor, 40, a U.S. attorney in Connecticut, as associate attorney general. He filled in temporarily as Gonzales' chief of staff after his predecessor resigned as a result of the firing controversy.
_ Gregory G. Katsas as assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division. Currently, Katsas, 43, is acting associate attorney general and principal deputy associate attorney general.
(Tish Wells and Greg Gordon contributed to this report.)
ON THE WEB
A list of the nominations sent to the Senate.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007