WASHINGTON—A U.S. attorney in Wisconsin who prosecuted a state Democratic official on corruption charges during last year's heated governor's race was once targeted for firing by the Department of Justice, but given a reprieve for reasons that remain unclear. A federal appeals court last week threw out the conviction of Wisconsin state worker Georgia Thompson, saying the evidence was "beyond thin."
Congressional investigators looking into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys saw Wisconsin prosecutor Steven M. Biskupic's name on a list of lawyers targeted for removal when they were inspecting a Justice Department document not yet made public, according to an attorney for a lawmaker involved in the investigation. The attorney asked for anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the investigation.
It wasn't clear when Biskupic was added to a Justice Department hit list of prosecutors, or when he was taken off, or whether those developments were connected to the just-overturned corruption case.
Nevertheless, the disclosure aroused investigators' suspicion that Biskupic might have been retained in his job because he agreed to prosecute Democrats, though the evidence was slight. Such politicization of the administration of justice is at the heart of congressional Democrats' concerns over the Bush administration's firings of the U.S. attorneys.
Republicans had cited the June 2006 conviction as evidence that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration was rife with corruption as he ran for re-election last year. He won anyway—the first Democratic governor of the state to win re-election in 32 years.
This revelation about Biskupic is expected to be the subject of questions to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales when he testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In other developments Friday, new e-mails released by the Justice Department revealed that contrary to his testimony before Congress last month, the former top aide to Gonzales recommended candidates to replace ousted U.S. attorneys.
Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Gonzales, listed the names of possible replacements in a January 2006 e-mail he sent to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
The disclosure offers more evidence that Justice Department officials may have misled Congress about attempting to transform the ranks of the nation's top federal prosecutors by firing some—perhaps for refusing to follow political direction, some evidence suggests—and replacing them with conservative loyalists from the Bush administration's inner circle.
The e-mail was included among almost 2,500 Justice Department documents released Friday in response to a congressional investigation into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. Gonzales is fighting to keep his job. He's in trouble with Congress as a result of contradictory statements he's made in attempting to explain the prosecutors' firings. He's scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what even some Republican senators call a "make-or-break" moment.
Another e-mail released Friday underscores the political sensitivity the prosecutors' firings stirred in the highest Republican circles in Washington. That e-mail bolstered Democrats' suspicion that Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff and political adviser, used Republican Party e-mail rather than White House e-mail to communicate about the prosecutors' firings.
Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings, sent an e-mail on Feb. 28 of this year to KR(at)georgewbush.com, Rove's e-mail address through the Republican National Committee; it also went to White House Counsel Fred Fielding and other White House and Justice Department officials.
The e-mail warned that ousted New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was going public later that day with his assertion that he was forced out because he didn't bring indictments against local Democrats before the November congressional election.
Jennings had been alerted by the chief of staff to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. Domenici later acknowledged calling Iglesias before the elections to ask if he would indict before the balloting. Iglesias told him no, and Domenici said that disappointed him and hung up. Iglesias has said he felt "leaned on" by Domenici, who's under investigation for this incident by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The Feb. 28 e-mail noted that Domenici already had been contacted by McClatchy Newspapers that morning about his role, but that he hadn't yet confirmed that he'd called Iglesias.
As for Sampson's January 2006 e-mail, he listed several candidates as possible replacements for then-U.S. attorneys Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, Carol Lam of San Diego and Bud Cummins of Arkansas. Justice Department officials had acknowledged firing Cummins to make way for former Rove aide Timothy Griffin, but denied any larger strategy to replace more independent prosecutors with White House-connected lawyers.
In testimony March 29 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sampson was asked by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., whether he had specific replacements in mind last Dec. 7, when seven of the prosecutors were asked to resign. Sampson responded that he did not—nor, he said, did he remember any other administration official proposing candidates.
"In fact, I remember, senator, as we were finalizing the list, I remember saying, not knowing who will be the replacement, `Do we still want to go forward with asking these seven to resign?'" he said.
In his e-mail 10 months before Dec. 7, however, Sampson proposed replacing Lam with either Jeffrey Taylor, currently the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and once a counselor to Gonzales, or Deborah Rhodes, now the U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., who then was a Justice Department counselor and prosecutor. Sampson also floated the idea of replacing Ryan with Daniel Levin, former acting assistant attorney general, for the office of legal counsel.
On Friday, Schumer described Sampson's testimony as "very lawyerly" but told reporters that the e-mail "makes it clear they did have a list of replacements."
"The questions for the attorney general continue to mount," Schumer said. "The issue of replacements now becomes a central question he will be asked."
Sampson's attorney, however, denied that the e-mail contradicted his client's testimony before Congress. Attorney Bradford Berenson said Sampson had no one in mind when the U.S. attorneys were eventually fired last December.
"Some names had been tentatively suggested for discussion much earlier in the process, but by the time the decision to ask for the resignations was made, none had been chosen to serve as a replacement," he said. "Most, if not all, had long since ceased even to be possibilities."
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, contended that the e-mail didn't contradict previous statements by Justice Department officials. He noted that Sampson wrote question marks after the names on the list.
"The list, drafted 10 months before the December resignations, reflects Kyle Sampson's initial thoughts, not pre-selected candidates by the administration," he said.