Bush administration targeted another top federal prosecutor

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration considered firing the former U.S. attorney in Minnesota, but he left his job voluntarily before the list of attorneys to be ousted was completed, two congressional aides said Thursday.

Congressional investigators probing the firings of eight U.S. attorneys saw Thomas Heffelfinger's name on a version of the list that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, began assembling in early 2005. Heffelfinger left in February 2006, more than nine months before the Justice Department agreed on a final list of prosecutors to remove.

The two senior congressional aides spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the document in question hasn't been made public and because the Justice Department has allowed investigators to read it but not to photocopy it. One of the aides, who also was familiar with Sampson's closed-door testimony to investigators earlier this month, said that Sampson couldn't recall specifics but said he'd been told that senior Justice officials had concerns about Heffelfinger.

The Justice Department Thursday declined to confirm or deny the report.

Heffelfinger's case interests congressional investigators because he worked in one of the states that White House political adviser Karl Rove identified as an election battleground, and because he was replaced by a 34-year-old Bush administration loyalist who'd been a member of Gonzales' inner circle.

In April, four top deputies in the U.S Attorney's Office in Minnesota resigned their leadership posts, apparently to protest the leadership of Heffelfinger's replacement, Rachel Paulose.

Reached Thursday, Heffelfinger said he "had no indication" that he was on a list of prosecutors to be fired. "I had no indication whatsoever at any point during my service as U.S. attorney that anybody at Justice was less than fully satisfied with my work," he told McClatchy Newspapers.

Democrats who control the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are investigating whether some prosecutors may have been fired for partisan political reasons.

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, but some of the prosecutors have alleged that they may have been ousted because they pursued corruption charges against Republicans or didn't indict Democrats in the weeks before hotly contested elections.

Several weeks ago, Heffelfinger denied that he was forced out or pressured in politically sensitive cases.

"Regardless of what Washington was doing, if I had a public integrity case where the evidence supported a prosecution, we brought it," he told McClatchy Newspapers. "And, it didn't make any difference whether it was Republican or Democrat."

Instead, he's said repeatedly that he left his post voluntarily for a private-sector job.

Unlike some of the ousted prosecutors, he said, he wasn't leading any high-profile prosecutions of Republicans and didn't face pressure to go after Democrats on corruption or voter fraud cases or to pursue pornography cases.

He also said he had a strong record on gun prosecutions and improving border immigration enforcement. He led a Native American issues committee but said he wasn't involved in the high-profile investigation of GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose case has spawned probes into administration officials and lawmakers.

"I was in Washington, D.C., regularly," Heffelfinger said. "I had a private meeting with the attorney general some time in the summer or fall of 2005 and spoke with Kyle Sampson no less than three times. If they had concerns, I was there, and it was private and they were never raised."

McClatchy Newspapers reported earlier this month that former U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic of Wisconsin was also targeted for firing, but was given a reprieve for reasons that remain unclear. Biskupic has said that political self-preservation was never a factor in his decision to prosecute a Democratic state official for corruption before last year's election, and that he was never pressured to pursue any case.

A federal appeals court, however, threw out the conviction of Wisconsin state worker Georgia Thompson, calling the evidence against her "beyond thin." Republicans had cited the June 2006 conviction as evidence that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration was corrupt as he ran for re-election last year. He won anyway.

Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to answer to contradictory statements he'd made in attempting to explain the prosecutors' firings. He's repeatedly denied firing the prosecutors for reasons related to public corruption cases.

The attorney general is to testify before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on May 8.