Politics & Government

Justice's criminal division gets a new chief

WASHINGTON — A Justice Department lawyer who became entangled in the scandal over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year is being nominated to take over the department's criminal division.

President Bush announced his intention Thursday to nominate Matthew Friedrich to replace Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who voluntarily steps down Friday.

Friedrich, 41, will serve as the acting assistant attorney general until he wins Senate confirmation.

Friedrich, a counselor to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, received an award for exceptional service in 2006 as one of the prosecutors who worked on the department's task force that investigated the collapse of the energy giant Enron. Before working in Washington, he was a prosecutor in Virginia and Texas for 10 years.

"Mr. Friedrich is a well-respected career federal prosecutor," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said. "The President believes he will do a wonderful job."

Friedrich also is known for his testimony related to the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. In May 2007, he told congressional investigators about a White House request to review a 27-page GOP memo detailing alleged Democratic voter fraud in Wisconsin.

Kyle Sampson, who later resigned as then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff because of his role in the firings, asked Friedrich to look into the allegations.

Sampson testified that he'd received the memo and other voter fraud complaints about New Mexico and Pennsylvania elections from the office of then-presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Democrats and two of the fired Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys accused the administration of trying to pressure Justice Department lawyers to bring voter fraud allegations to help the GOP in swing states.

Friedrich acknowledged discussing voter fraud allegations with a lawyer in the criminal division, shortly after leaving the division to become one of Gonzales' aides. Friedrich, however, said he decided it would be wrong to open a formal inquiry into the allegations so close to the election.

Friedrich, who is married to a former White House associate counsel, also told Congress that New Mexico GOP activists complained to him that then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was not doing enough to prosecute local Democrats for corruption. By then, administration officials had secretly decided to fire Iglesias. Friedrich's wife, Dabney, exchanged e-mails with Justice Department officials about the decision to fire Iglesias and the other prosecutors.

Sam Buell, one of the former lead prosecutors in the Enron case, said he didn't believe Friedrich would allow himself to be swayed by political interests. Buell said his former colleague had been shaped by "his love for the Justice Department and a ton of ground-level prosecution experience."

"His institutional loyalty comes before his party loyalty," Buell said.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, noted that Friedrich won praise from Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer during a hearing last year on the U.S. attorney firings. Schumer described Friedrich as "very well respected."

Nonetheless, several Justice Department career attorneys, who wouldn't speak publicly because of Friedrich's position at the department, expressed concern about the appointment because of Friedrich's political ties and the sensitive nature of some of the ongoing criminal cases.

Fisher was praised for her management of several high-profile criminal investigations, including the prosecution of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. So far, the Justice Department has won 12 convictions, including of a congressman and a former high-ranking Justice Department official.