WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is transforming the ranks of the nation's top federal prosecutors by firing some and appointing conservative loyalists from the Bush administration's inner circle who critics say are unlikely to buck Washington.
The newly appointed U.S. attorneys all have impressive legal credentials, but most of them have few, if any, ties to the communities they've been appointed to serve, and some have had little experience as prosecutors.
The nine recent appointees identified by McClatchy Newspapers held high-level White House or Justice Department jobs, and most of them were handpicked by Gonzales under a little-noticed provision of the Patriot Act that became law in March.
With Congress now controlled by the Democrats, critics fear that in some cases Gonzales is trying to skirt the need for Senate confirmation by giving new U.S. attorneys interim appointments for indefinite terms. Some legal scholars contend that the administration pushed for the change in the Patriot Act as part of its ongoing attempt to expand the power of the executive branch, a charge that administration officials deny.
Being named a U.S. attorney "has become a prize for doing the bidding of the White House or administration," said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who's now a professor at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "In the past, there had been a great deal of delegation to the local offices. Now, you have a consolidation of power in Washington."
A Justice Department spokesman said it was "reckless" to suggest that politics had influenced the appointment process.
The appointments have troubled some current and former prosecutors, who worry that the Justice Department is tightening its control over local U.S. attorneys' offices in order to curb the prosecutors' independence.
If they're too close to the administration, these lawyers said, federal prosecutors might not be willing to pursue important but controversial cases that don't fit into the administration's agenda. Similarly, they said, U.S. attorneys could be forced to pursue only Washington's priorities rather than their own.
The selection of U.S. attorneys has always been a political process.
Traditionally, the top assistant U.S. attorney in each local office temporarily 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.
Gonzales gained the ability to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms as a result of a change to the Patriot Act that stripped federal judges of their appointment power.
A Justice Department spokesman denied that Gonzales has sought to compromise the independence of U.S. attorneys' offices by appointing political loyalists. In some recent cases Gonzales has followed the traditional process.
"Allegations that politics inappropriately interfere with personnel decisions made about U.S. attorneys are reckless and plainly wrong," department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. "... The bottom line is that we nominate experienced attorneys who we believe can do the job."
He said that it's common for attorneys to serve stints at department headquarters and that it "can be tremendously beneficial" for a U.S. attorney to have served in Washington.
Gonzales and his aides also deny that they're attempting to do an end run around the Senate. In a recent letter to two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said the change was sought to avoid conflicts involving federal judges appointing officials to posts in the executive branch of government.
At a recent Senate hearing, Gonzales said the administration is committed to giving senators of the president's party their traditional say in selecting U.S. attorney candidates.
Since last March, the administration has named at least nine U.S. attorneys with administration ties. None would agree to an interview. They include:
Some of these appointees have drawn praise from local skeptics and later won Senate confirmation for permanent appointments.
Roehrkasse said that while some newly appointed U.S. attorneys might have political connections, they all have outstanding credentials.
Todd Jones, who was a U.S. attorney in Minneapolis during the Clinton administration, said he was concerned by the overall trend of an administration putting into place a "more centralized, command-and-control system."
Several prosecutors said prior Republican administrations avoided such tight control.
"Under Reagan and the first Bush administration, we worked very hard to push the power out to the locals," said Jean Paul Bradshaw, who was a U.S. attorney in Kansas City under President George H.W. Bush. "Local attorneys know how a case will play in their areas, what crimes are a problem. Ultimately, these decisions are better made locally."
Peter Nunez, a U.S. attorney in San Diego under President Reagan for six years, said prosecutors have expressed frustration with the strict oversight from Washington.
"I've heard nothing but complaints over the last six years about how many things the Justice Department is demanding relating to bureaucracy and red tape," Nunez said.
In the wake of the recent firings of a half-dozen U.S. attorneys, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, filed bills that would restore to federal judges the right to name interim appointees when vacancies develop. On Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whose office has confirmed that he inserted language making the change in Patriot Act last year, gave his qualified support to Feinstein's bill.
Justice Department officials have refused to say how many prosecutors were fired or to explain the firings, but Feinstein has said she's aware of the ouster of at least seven U.S. attorneys since March 2006.
Former U.S. attorneys who know some of those ousted said they were concerned because the administration in some cases offered no reason for the dismissals.
Among those dismissed were Carol Lam of San Diego, whose office won a bribery conviction against then-Rep. Randolph "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and prosecuted several members of San Diego's city council. The Cunningham case is ongoing.
Also ordered to resign was Kevin Ryan, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, who was overseeing high-profile investigations into steroids use by major league baseball players and the backdating of stock options by Apple Inc., and other firms.
"One of the strengths of any administration towards the end of their time in office is having highly experienced people in place," said Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney in Minneapolis who voluntarily resigned and was replaced by Paulose. "It helps things function really smoothly, and you get your priorities handled aggressively and efficiently."