Fired attorneys did a good job, ex-boss testifies

Ex-Justice official contradicts Bush administration

May 04, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,Los Angels Times

Washington -- A former high-ranking Justice Department official in the Bush administration offered praise yesterday for most of the U.S. attorneys who were dismissed last year, saying he considered some to be among the department's most able prosecutors.

The testimony of James B. Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 until August 2005, often contradicted explanations for the firings given by the White House and the Justice Department, which have said that the eight U.S. attorneys were removed for performance reasons.

Comey told a House Judiciary subcommittee that six of the former prosecutors were doing a good job, and that only one was among those he considered weak performers. Comey, now a senior vice president and general counsel for the Lockheed Martin Corp., said he had "very positive encounters with these folks" and that the official explanations given for their departures "have not been consistent with my experience."

The testimony of the career prosecutor and one-time Republican political appointee appeared to complicate efforts by the administration to defuse a controversy that has threatened the tenure of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

Comey's comments added fuel to suspicions among Democrats in Congress who are investigating the matter that the purge was orchestrated for partisan reasons such as managing public corruption investigations to benefit Republicans.

"Today, we further confirmed that the department's stated reasons for firing the six U.S. attorneys who testified before this committee had little or no basis in fact," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat.

Comey testified that he had no information to suggest that the firings were carried out to disrupt corruption probes. But he also said that even though he was responsible for directly supervising U.S. attorneys around the country, he was never informed that a plan was afoot to fire federal prosecutors.

Comey said the only contact he had with anyone about the firings was a 15-minute meeting in February 2005 with D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' then-chief of staff, in which he was asked to give an offhand assessment of poor-performing U.S. attorneys.

Comey said he never contacted White House officials about firing U.S. attorneys. While Sampson and others in the small group of staff members involved in planning the dismissals often communicated with White House Counsel Harriet Miers about the firings, Comey said his discussions with her never included hiring decisions at Justice.

A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said the department would have no comment on Comey's testimony.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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