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Justice Dept. distances White House from firings of U.S. attorneys

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department said Wednesday that revisions in the USA Patriot Act that gave the administration unprecedented powers to replace ousted U.S. attorneys were designed by a mid-level department lawyer without the knowledge of his superiors or anyone at the White House.

The provision allows the attorney general to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for the remainder of President Bush's term without Senate confirmation.

Over the last several days, the administration has been forced to explain a strategy that removed eight U.S. attorneys who had fallen out of favor with the administration and replaced them with loyalists. Critics contend the effort was inspired by election year politics and was designed as retaliation against the more independent prosecutors.

Wednesday's explanation of the Patriot Act changes, along with the release of new e-mail correspondence, was meant to stave off mounting accusations by Democrats as their investigation into the administration's firing of the prosecutors widens. Democrats say they now are suspicious that the changes were part of an attempt to grab executive powers and play politics with prosecutorial appointments. They also accused the Justice Department of misleading Congress about the intent of the new law.

In e-mails released earlier this week, Justice Department officials discussed relying on the new powers to get "our preferred person appointed" with "far less deference to home state senators," according to an e-mail by Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

In an interview Wednesday, William Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general, said that he pursued the changes on his own, without the knowledge or coordination of his superiors at the Justice Department or anyone at the White House.

Moschella maintained his intent was not to strip the Senate of the power to reject U.S. attorneys that might be objectionable. Justice Department officials noted that 16 U.S. attorneys nominations have been sent to the Senate since the passage of the law in March 2006.

"I did not intend nor was it the department position that this provision be used to circumvent the Senate's confirmation's role," Moschella said.

But neither Moschella nor other department officials disclosed at what point Moschella or anyone else at Justice realized the provision could be used as part of the wider strategy of replacing U.S. attorneys.

Moschella and department officials also could not explain why the then-assistant attorney general for legislative affairs was in a position to pursue such a change without input from others within the department or permission from superiors.

Moschella's disclosures came as Democrats continued to look for evidence that the Congress was misled about the reasons for changing the law.

Earlier Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to President Bush asking him to explain who in his administration crafted the provision and whether Bush knew of the effect of the changes before they became law.

"The evidence we've gotten seems to indicate the Patriot Act wasn't changed for the purposes that they first announced," Schumer said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers, "but rather to make it easier to get rid of U.S. attorneys and appoint their own people without Senate confirmation."

Tim Griffin, who was appointed as an interim to fill the U.S. attorney's job in Little Rock, Ark., was a former aide to Bush's political advisor Karl Rove. Even though he said he would not seek Senate confirmation, Griffin said Wednesday he plans to remain in office as long as the administration wanted him to.

The e-mails released Wednesday show Moschella corresponding in 2004 with a Los Angeles attorney named Daniel Collins, who had previously worked for the Justice Department.

In telephone interviews, Moschella and Collins both said Collins had floated the idea of taking district judges out of the vacancy-filling process back in 2003, when he was still at Justice. A former assistant U.S. attorney, Collins said the ability of a district court judge to appoint an interim U.S. attorney if the Senate did not confirm a nominee raised constitutional questions about the separation of powers.

In 2004, Collins said Moschella e-mailed him saying he wanted to pursue such a change. Collins said he did not ask Moschella what triggered his interest and Moschella did not volunteer it.

Collins warned Moschella that if district judges lost their appointment power, the Justice Department would have to figure out how to fill the vacancies. Among the options were making rolling appointments; putting the deputy U.S. attorney in the job temporarily, or allowing the interim appointee to remain indefinitely, Collins said Wednesday.

Collins said that the last option "was certainly never my intention." He added that he did not know why Moschella chose to draft the provision that way.

None of the e-mails released so far by the Justice Department connects the White House's political team to the legislation prior to its passage. More documents are expected to arrive by week's end.

Until this year, most lawmakers were apparently unaware when they voted last March that the new provisions took away the Senate's power to reject interim U.S. attorneys.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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