WASHINGTON _Senior congressional aides who have seen unedited internal documents say the Bush administration considered firing at least a dozen U.S. attorneys before settling on eight late last year.
The four who escaped dismissal came from states that the White House considered political battlegrounds in the last presidential election: Missouri, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Two of the four said they resigned voluntarily before eight U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7. Two continue to serve as federal prosecutors.
The latest revelation could provide new fodder to critics who contend that politics, not policy or performance, played the determining role in the firing decisions. At the very least, it opens new avenues of inquiry for investigators from the House of Representatives and Senate Judiciary Committees.
The White House and the Justice Department have denied repeatedly that politics played any role in the firings.
The congressional aides, who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to discuss the information publicly, on Friday confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves of Kansas City, Mo., and U.S. Attorney Thomas Marino of Scranton, Pa., were among the 12 whose jobs were in jeopardy.
Graves resigned in March to return to private legal practice. Marino kept his job as the chief federal prosecutor in central and eastern Pennsylvania.
Graves said Friday he was surprised to learn that he had been considered a possible target for dismissal, but he expressed relief that he was no longer with the Justice Department.
"The current environment at the department can only be described as toxic. ... What is going on now in D.C. is a three-ring circus, and I don't want anything to do with it," he told The Kansas City Star.
Marino didn't respond to requests for comment Friday.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse declined to discuss any of the redacted names. He said the Justice Department withheld the names of prosecutors who had been considered for possible dismissal to protect their reputations and "their ability to function effectively as U.S. attorneys or professionals in other roles."
McClatchy previously identified two other prosecutors who were dropped from the final list: former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger of Minneapolis and U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic of Milwaukee. Heffelfinger resigned in February to go into private legal practice. Biskupic remains at his federal post in Wisconsin.
It's not clear why any of the four prosecutors who were dropped from the list were initially targeted or what led to their reprieves. Biskupic and Heffelfinger have said that they were unaware that they were at risk of losing their jobs.
The administration has declined to disclose the full list of U.S. attorneys who had been considered possible targets for dismissal, but redacted documents that the administration released to Congress left no doubt that other prosecutors had been targeted.
The names of three possible targets were edited out of a Jan. 9, 2006, internal Justice Department e-mail, leaving blank spaces on a list that included four prosecutors who were later forced out. But some congressional investigators were allowed to review unedited department documents.
The eight fired prosecutors were Daniel Bogden of Nevada, Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of western Michigan, Bud Cummins of eastern Arkansas, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Carol Lam of southern California, Kevin Ryan of northern California and John McKay of Washington state.
Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees say they're increasingly convinced that the dismissals were a political purge. The committees are in a standoff with the White House over congressional demands for public testimony from Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser.
White House officials have acknowledged that Rove was a conduit for complaints from Republican activists who were critical of federal prosecutors in their regions. At least four of the fired prosecutors were from states that Rove publicly identified as battlegrounds in the next presidential election: Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada and Arkansas.
In Missouri, a traditional battleground state, Graves won good reviews from law enforcement officials and local prosecutors before he announced his decision to step down. The Bush appointee came under fire from Missouri Democrats in 2005 when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt awarded a $2.6 million no-bid contract to Graves' wife, Tracy, allowing her to run a state motor vehicle fee office.
The family connection to Blunt became a problem for Graves when the governor was caught in a corruption investigation involving state contracts. Graves recused himself, and Cummins, the top federal prosecutor in neighboring Arkansas, took over. He ultimately dropped the case without issuing any indictments.
Graves was replaced by an interim prosecutor until U.S. Attorney John Wood, a distant cousin of Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., took the job in April.
In Pennsylvania, Marino had considered stepping down earlier this year to run for his old job as a state district attorney in Lycoming County. He decided against it and continues to serve as a federal prosecutor.