WASHINGTON — A senior Justice Department official immersed in the furor over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys is resigning to join a private law firm, a department official said Friday.
Michael Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, became the fifth department official to leave his post since the controversy over the firings rocked the nation's top law enforcement agency.
The scandal has sparked House of Representatives and Senate investigations, inquiries by the Justice Department's internal watchdogs and repeated calls for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.
A Justice Department official, who insisted upon anonymity in discussing a personnel matter, said Elston had landed an attractive job at a Washington area law firm. Next Friday will be his last day at Justice.
Elston did not respond to calls for comment.
McNulty said in a statement that Elston ``has served the Department of Justice with distinction for nearly eight years'' as a line prosecutor, appellate chief in the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., and as his top aide.
Elston's name first surfaced when one of the fired U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, disclosed in March that Elston had phoned him to suggest that senior department officials would retaliate against the prosecutors if they discussed their firings publicly.
In an e-mail written to five of the ousted U.S. attorneys minutes after the Elston call, Cummins said of the conversation: "I was tempted to challenge him and say something movie-like such as `are you threatening ME???'"
The department denied that Elston was trying to intimidate or silence the dismissed U.S. attorneys.
Elston's name also showed up on numerous e-mails in which department officials weighed which U.S. attorneys to fire. In one e-mail, he was informed about how the department would deal with the fallout from the firings.
In recent testimony, the former interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Bradley Schlozman, disclosed that he sought approval from Elston before bringing indictments for voter-registration fraud against four workers for a liberal-leaning group just days before the 2006 election. Department policy discourages such prosecutions on the eve of elections.
Elston's boss, McNulty, announced recently that he would leave his job at the end of the summer.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Elston's resignation ``was expected, but it adds to the void" in the Department of Justice's leadership, with several top-tier posts occupied by temporary stand-ins.
``The Department of Justice does seem in a bit of disarray,'' he said.