Prosecutors fired

Democrats alarmed

White House has dismissed 7 U.S. attorneys recently

February 07, 2007|By Karoun Demirjian | Karoun Demirjian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, was praised for her successful prosecution of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the California Republican who pleaded guilty to tax evasion and corruption and was sent to prison for more than eight years.

Now, she is one of seven federal prosecutors removed from office by the Bush administration in recent weeks, most of them for unspecified reasons, as was the case with Lam.

Dismissals unusual

Such dismissals are unusual, and that has prompted several Democratic senators to accuse the White House of taking undue aim at U.S. prosecutors to make way for up-and-coming Republicans or to punish those who aggressively prosecuted friends of the administration.

The Department of Justice has strongly denied the allegations but has refused to publicly give any reasons for the dismissals.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty defended the firings yesterday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, saying, "U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. They come and go for lots of reasons. ... We don't really believe we are obligated to set forth a reason or cause."

The nation's 94 U.S. attorneys, the chief federal prosecutors in their cities or geographic regions, are generally appointed at the beginning of a president's term. Typically, barring serious misconduct, they serve until the end of his tenure or until they leave voluntarily.

The current round of removals has attracted Democratic attention because of a little-noticed measure that was slipped into the Patriot Act Reauthorization last year allowing the White House to circumvent Senate approval for U.S. attorneys by making open-ended interim appointments.

Since President Bush signed the bill, about a dozen U.S. attorneys have resigned. McNulty said at least seven of the resignations were sought by the Justice Department but that only the resignation of H.E. Cummins III of Little Rock, Ark., was sought without a specific cause related to job performance. Cummins was replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, a military prosecutor and former assistant to White House political operative Karl Rove.

McNulty told the committee that the administration is consulting with senators to identify the best candidates for the vacated jobs and intends to send nominees to the Senate for confirmation.

Panel plans vote

Judiciary Committee members said they plan to vote tomorrow on rescinding the Patriot Act provision that allows the administration to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation.

Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, told the committee, "I am convinced that the administration and future administrations will bypass the Senate if the law isn't changed."

Pryor said he doubts that in the seven months since Cummins was first asked to step down the administration couldn't send an official nominee to the Senate for confirmation.

"This is larger than any party affiliation or any single appointment," he said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, bristled at allegations that he had played any part in crafting the clause on interim appointments in the Patriot Act. He agreed to cooperate to return the law on U.S. attorney appointments to its pre-2006 status.

Under the earlier law, interim terms expire after 120 days and, if no replacement can be nominated and confirmed in that time, the local federal court names a replacement.

McNulty said that arrangement has caused problems, such as in South Dakota in 2005, when a U.S. district judge's appointee for interim U.S. attorney was overruled by the Justice Department in favor of a candidate it had selected, precipitating a legal dispute.

Several senators said the alternative in the Patriot Act, possibly cutting them out of the appointment process, is unacceptable.

"The Patriot Act should not have been amended," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sponsored the measure to revise the law. "I do not believe anyone in this committee knew it was in the law - no Republican, no Democrat."

Not all members of the Judiciary Committee expressed concern about the firings. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said, "For seven out of 94 to be asked to step down is not that big a deal to me. My personal opinion is that the Department of Justice is far too reticent in reviewing U.S. attorneys that do not perform."

Karoun Demirjian writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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