WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's decision to fire nine U.S. attorneys last year has created a new problem for the White House: The controversy appears to be discouraging applications for some of the 22 prosecutor posts that President Bush needs to fill.
Of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys, 22 are serving without Senate confirmation as interim or acting prosecutors. They represent districts in Alaska, Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, West Virginia and Washington.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the administration is committed to nominating candidates for all 22 open positions, but so far the administration has submitted only four nominees.
In Florida, the panel that's evaluating candidates and making recommendations to the White House has received only two applicants for the vacancy left by U.S. Attorney Paul Perez in Tampa—even after it extended the May 3 deadline to apply. Perez, who resigned in March, left for a private-sector job. He's said that he wasn't forced out.
"I personally was disappointed we didn't have more," said Michael J. Grindstaff, the chairman of the Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission. "I was wondering if there was a way to attract more applicants."
Some other states where Congress is investigating prosecutors' ousters also have gotten fewer responses than the administration hoped for.
Fratto said that with only a year and a half left in Bush's presidency, it's no surprise that fewer candidates might seek a job they'd likely lose when the next president takes over.
"It has nothing to do with recent events," Fratto said. "The closer you get toward the end of the second term, you're going to have fewer people." He also said the administration continues to attract "really, really talented people for top jobs."
David Iglesias, the ousted New Mexico U.S. attorney, said that timing may be a contributing factor, but that the administration is in denial if it doesn't believe there are concerns about low office morale, the ability to remain independent or even the odds of being confirmed by a suspicious Senate controlled by the Democrats.
"The Justice Department is embattled, and people aren't readily applying to be U.S. attorneys because of this dark cloud," Iglesias said. "Given the incredible scrutiny by the Senate, you're not guaranteed being confirmed anymore. They're going to start looking at every U.S. attorney for the rest of this administration to make sure that person wasn't put in for purely political reasons."
"Every U.S. attorney nominee will be put under a fine-toothed comb of examination," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Legislation sponsored by Feinstein, which Congress passed this week and will take effect within days, limits interim U.S. attorneys to serving no more than 120 days. After that, district court judges can appoint an interim prosecutor until the Senate confirms a permanent replacement.
If a first assistant U.S. attorney office's fills a vacancy, he or she can remain acting U.S. attorney for up to 210 days without Senate confirmation. But some of those already have been on the job for months.
The firings controversy prompted Feinstein's legislation by exposing a little-noticed provision the administration slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act that Congress passed in early 2006.
Crafted by a Justice Department lawyer, the provision stripped the Senate of its power to block U.S. attorney replacements by allowing the president to appoint interim U.S. attorneys who could serve indefinitely.
After that became law, the administration ousted the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark. and named as his interim replacement Tim Griffin, a former Republican Party opposition researcher who'd worked for White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Now Griffin has four months to find another job. He declined an interview request, but is expected to leave his position sooner than that.
The Justice Department has denied that changing the law was part of a strategy to replace prosecutors, saying the timing was coincidental and the intent was to end the ability of local judges to choose interim prosecutors the administration didn't want.
Feinstein said she doesn't believe that. "This loophole that they so carefully created for themselves is now gone," she said.