Official denies prosecutors were ousted for political reasons

WASHINGTON — The No. 2 Justice Department official acknowledged Tuesday that at least seven U.S. attorneys were asked to resign, but he denied that the administration ousted them for political reasons.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee that six U.S. attorneys were asked to step down in December because of "performance-related" issues.

However, McNulty said H.E. "Bud" Cummins, the former U.S. attorney in Arkansas, wasn't fired because of how he handled his job. Rather, McNulty said, administration officials wanted to make room for Timothy Griffin, a former aide of presidential adviser Karl Rove.

McNulty emphasized that the administration has the power to fire U.S. attorneys from the politically appointed positions—even without any apparent cause. But he denied that politics played any role in the firings of other U.S. attorneys, including Carol Lam, who was asked to step down in San Diego. In 2005, Lam's office won a bribery conviction against then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. That investigation is continuing.

McNulty said his department had been "proud" of the Cunningham prosecution, but he declined to elaborate on Lam's or any other U.S. attorney's firing during the hearing. He agreed instead to brief senators privately on the matter.

"We never have and never will seek to remove a United States attorney to interfere with an ongoing investigation or prosecution, or in retaliation for prosecution," he said. "Such an act is contrary to the most basic values of our system of justice."

The decision to fire the U.S. attorneys came under scrutiny late last month after Senate Democrats discovered that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could use a little-noticed change in the Patriot Act to fill the vacancies with appointees.

The legal change last March allowed Gonzales to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms.

Last month, McClatchy Newspapers analyzed many of those interim appointments and found that Gonzales had been appointing conservative loyalists from the Bush administration's inner circle to fill the vacancies.

The new U.S. attorneys all have impressive legal credentials, but most of them have few ties to the communities they've been appointed to serve, and some have little experience as prosecutors.

Several have become permanent U.S. attorneys after Senate confirmation.

Traditionally, the top assistant U.S. attorney in each local office fills any vacancy while home-state senators search for preferred candidates to present to the White House for consideration. If it takes more than four months to find a permanent successor, a judge can extend the temporary appointment or name another acting U.S. attorney. Ultimately, the candidates must be confirmed by the Senate.

Senate Democrats said they were concerned that the administration is attempting to bypass the Senate confirmation process under the new Patriot Act provision.

Administration officials argue that the change was necessary to ensure that judges didn't appoint interim U.S. attorneys who were hostile to the administration.

McNulty said that the Justice Department is committed to giving home-state senators of the president's party their traditional say in submitting the names of preferred candidates for White House consideration.

Mary Jo White, who was appointed U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York by President Clinton in 1993, told the committee that any firings of U.S. attorneys in the middle of an administration "without significant cause," such as serious misconduct, would be unprecedented.

If U.S. attorneys had been removed because of controversy over cases or "just to give another person the opportunity to serve," the actions would "pose a threat to the independence of the U.S. attorneys," she said.

Laurie Levenson, a former assistant U.S. attorney who's now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the revelation about Cummins being removed to give someone else a chance to be U.S. attorney "was precisely the problem."

"The job of U.S. attorney should not be a political prize," she said. "There's too much at stake for the district and the people who work in that office."

Despite Griffin's relative inexperience as a prosecutor, McNulty described the former Rove aide as "well qualified" to run the office in Little Rock.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., contended that the appointment didn't "pass the smell test."

"I can't even see how Mr. Griffin would be better qualified in any way than Bud Cummins, who had done a good job, who was well respected, who had now had years of experience," he said.

Bills are now pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate that would restore the traditional interim appointment process to judges.