U.S. Attorney Firings: The Plot Thickens
WaPo’s Dan Eggen reports suspicious circumstances in the firing of former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam:
The U.S. attorney in San Diego notified the Justice Department of search warrants in a Republican bribery scandal last May 10, one day before the attorney general’s chief of staff warned the White House of a “real problem” with her, a Democratic senator said yesterday. The prosecutor, Carol S. Lam, was dismissed seven months later as part of an effort by the Justice Department and the White House to fire eight U.S. attorneys.
A Justice spokesman said there was no connection between Lam’s firing and her public corruption investigations, and pointed to criticisms of Lam for her record on prosecuting immigration cases.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a television appearance yesterday that Lam “sent a notice to the Justice Department saying that there would be two search warrants” in a criminal investigation of defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes and Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, who had just quit as the CIA’s top administrator amid questions about his ties to disgraced former GOP congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
The next day, May 11, D. Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, sent an e-mail message to William Kelley in the White House counsel’s office saying that Lam should be removed as quickly as possible, according to documents turned over to Congress last week. “Please call me at your convenience to discuss the following,” Sampson wrote, referring to “[t]he real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires.”
His colleague, Amy Goldstein, reports that David Iglesias, who was ostensibly fired for insufficient vigor in pursuing voter fraud allegations, was twice singled out by the DOJ as an exemplar in handling voter fraud cases.
Iglesias, a Republican, said in an interview that he and the U.S. attorney from Milwaukee, Steven M. Biskupic, were chosen as trainers because they were the only ones identified as having created task forces to examine allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 elections. An agenda lists them as the panelists for a session on such task forces at the two-day seminar, which featured a luncheon speech by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
According to Iglesias, the agency invited him back as a trainer last summer, just months before a Justice official telephoned to fire him. He said he could not attend the second time because of his obligations as an officer in the Navy Reserve.
Now, these things could be coincidental. U.S. Attorneys handle very sensitive, high profile cases for a living. It may well be that several of the 85 that were not fired were involved in cases that had uncomfortable implications for Republican figures. It may well be that Iglesias had serious problems of which were are unaware and that the blanket “voter fraud” explanation given for the firings did not apply to him. Further, “at the pleasure of the president” provides a flexible rationale for firing a political appointee, covering an infinite range of sins of omission and commission.
Still, this all looks rather suspicious. While there’s no question but that the president has the right to fire any U.S. Attorney at any time, for any reason, it’s not customary to do so in mid-term. (Although, in the case of Lam, her four-year appointment simply expired and was not renewed.) Further, senior administration officials, including the Attorney General, have told Congress that “performance” rather than politics was behind these firings. It would certainly behoove the president to get out in front of this, quickly, by offering more detailed explanations beyond AG Gonzales’ rather vague “mistakes were made” statement.
UPDATE: Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor of McClatchy Newspapers report that DOJ will be providing more information today:
Justice Department officials originally told Congress that the U.S. attorneys had been dismissed for poor performance. But since it’s become known that most of the attorneys received positive job evaluations.
Last week, the Justice Department released e-mails showing that loyalty to President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was among the criteria used to judge U.S. attorneys’ performance and that Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers were deeply involved in discussions leading up to the dismissals.
Roehrkasse said the Justice Department would provide additional e-mails to Congress on Monday. The documents were to have been surrendered last week, but Justice officials delayed the delivery, saying they needed more time to prepare them.
One change seems a very likely consequence of all this:
Also this week, the House and Senate are scheduled to vote to undo a law quietly passed last year that stripped the Senate’s power to reject interim U.S. attorneys the administration might pick to replace ousted prosecutors.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the top Republican on the panel, said Congress should consider writing legislation to require the Justice Department to show cause if the administration wants to remove one of its U.S. attorneys. “Congress has the constitutional authority to set some parameters and guidelines,” Specter said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We don’t really want to interfere with the president’s basic right to set policy. If he wants immigration cases emphasized, his U.S. attorneys ought to do that. Whatever classifications he wants ought to be followed. But we’re learning from this experience. If we find there’s a way to better regulate this kind of a situation, Congress ought to act.”
That seems well within Congress’ prerogative.
UPDATE: Anderson questions whether this is within Congress’ authority. Upon reflection, it’s almost certainly not. While President Andrew Johnson was impeached for (ostensibly) violating the Tenure of Office Act, which forbad him firing a cabinet secretary without congressional approval, the Supreme Court ruled in Myers v. United States (1926) that the President has plenary power to remove executive branch officials.