WASHINGTON—A former senior Justice Department official Thursday defended seven of the eight U.S. attorneys the Bush administration fired, saying he had concerns about the performance of only one of them and wouldn't have recommended that the others be removed.
Former deputy attorney general James Comey told a House Judiciary subcommittee that although it was his responsibility as the department's second-in-command to supervise the nation's top prosecutors, he was never told that the department and the White House had targeted some prosecutors for replacement.
Comey's successor, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, told congressional investigators last week that he, too, was kept in the dark about the White House's role in the firings.
Comey's and McNulty's accounts further undermine claims by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other department officials the prosecutors were fired for professional, not political, reasons. It also raises questions about the accuracy of statements made by other top Justice officials who've claimed that career lawyers helped decide who should be fired.
According to a congressional aide, McNulty said he attended a White House meeting with Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, and other officials on March 5, the day before McNulty's deputy William Moschella was to testify to Congress about the firings.
White House officials told the Justice Department group that they needed to agree on clear reasons why each prosecutor was fired and explain them to Congress, McNulty said, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the transcript of McNulty's interview hasn't been made public.
McNulty said that White House officials never revealed during the meeting that they'd been discussing plans to replace some prosecutors with Gonzales aides, the congressional aide said.
McNulty recalled feeling disturbed and concerned when he found out days later that the White House had been involved, the congressional aide said. McNulty considered the extent of White House coordination to be "extremely problematic."
A Justice Department spokesman declined comment. A White House spokesman said the meeting wasn't unusual. "We have meetings all the time," said Tony Fratto, who declined to say who attended the March 5 meeting.
Comey also testified Thursday that he's concerned by allegations that Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's former White House liaison, may have used partisan and ideological litmus tests to hire some assistant U.S. attorneys and career lawyers, a violation of law.
The Justice Department this week said it's investigating the allegations.
So far, congressional investigators haven't been able to determine who created the firing list. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales' chief of staff, has testified that he merely collected suggestions from other Justice Department officials. Gonzales has said that he delegated the responsibility for drawing up the list to Sampson, but he wasn't able to answer whose idea it was.
Comey testified that on Feb. 28, 2005, Sampson asked him whom he considered the weakest U.S. attorneys in the event that some might be replaced.
The U.S. attorneys Comey said he mentioned to Sampson included only one of those who were later fired, Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, who had documented management problems.
Comey said he'd been asked similar questions about weak U.S. attorneys in 2004, when former Attorney General John Ashcroft ran the department.
No one told ever him there was a plan to replace some federal prosecutors, or that the White House was involved, he testified. Of the conversation with Sampson, Comey said, "I thought it was a casual conversation in the course of a very brief meeting."
Comey left the department in August of 2005 to become general counsel for Lockheed Martin Corp.
Several of the U.S. attorneys who were forced out last year in Arkansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Michigan and Washington have alleged improper political motives or said they were never told why they were fired.
Comey described three of the prosecutors, Dan Bogden of Nevada, Paul Charlton of Arizona and John McKay of Washington in especially effusive terms.
Charlton was a "very strong U.S. attorney, one of the best", although he may have differed with administration officials about applying the death penalty in certain cases, Comey said.
He called McKay "one of my favorites" because he is "very charming and is a passionate person," despite administration officials' claims that he was dismissed for not following the administration's directives.
Bogden, he said, was "a fired-up guy," and "loved by his community." Justice Department officials have claimed that they needed new "energy" in the office.
He also praised ousted U.S. attorneys Carol Lam of San Diego and David Iglesias of New Mexico as effective prosecutors.
After his testimony, he told reporters that he didn't know Bud Cummins of Arkansas or Margaret Chiara of Michigan as well, but knew of no glaring performance issues with them.
Comey said that during his tenure the department sought the resignations of two U.S. attorneys for allegations of wrongdoing. He declined to elaborate, but said that when it happened the attorneys were given detailed reasons in advance.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)