Gonzales in for more questioning

Congressional hearings focus on turnover of federal prosecutors in Missouri, Minnesota

May 10, 2007|By Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger | Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, seeking to clear the air surrounding the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, is expected to face tough new questions today on Capitol Hill about the Justice Department's replacement of top prosecutors in two battleground states.

Among other topics, members of the House Judiciary Committee are expected to ask Gonzales about turmoil in the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota where a young lawyer, Rachel Paulose, has generated controversy since she was named in 2006 to replace a department veteran, Tom Heffelfinger, who had served under President Bush and his father.

Lawmakers also want to know whether another former U.S. attorney, Todd Graves of Kansas City, Mo., was forced out last year for not endorsing a voter-fraud lawsuit against Missouri in November 2005.

Suit dismissed

That suit was launched by his successor, a conservative voting-rights advocate from Justice headquarters, although it was eventually dismissed by a court as baseless.

Heffelfinger, who resigned in February 2006, has said he did so voluntarily and was not aware of any pressure to leave. However, congressional staffers confirm that his name appeared at one point on the list of U.S. attorneys to be removed.

Graves departed the next month and has declined to be drawn into the debate over the circumstances of his departure. "What is going on now in D.C. is a three-ring circus, and I don't want anything to do with it," Graves said in a statement.

Neither man was among the eight U.S. attorneys whose dismissals last year have sparked allegations of political meddling by the White House and Justice Department in corruption investigations and voter fraud cases.

Close elections

But both worked in states that had close Senate elections last November. Some Democrats have suggested that the Bush administration tried to manipulate Justice Department prosecutions to help tilt close races toward Republicans.

And both were apparently facing pressures from Washington late in their tenure.

Justice Department e-mails released to congressional investigators in recent weeks indicate that other U.S. attorneys, who were not identified, would have been recommended for dismissal - if they had not resigned first.

Justice officials had unspecified "concerns" about Heffelfinger, according to a lawyer familiar with testimony given to congressional investigators who declined to be identified because the testimony is sealed.

Yesterday, the office of Sen. Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican who recommended Graves for U.S. attorney, confirmed a report that a former staff member had urged the White House to replace Graves just months before he resigned from the post.

A freshman member of the Judiciary panel, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said he plans to quiz Gonzales about the departure of Heffelfinger and his replacement by Paulose.

`Political loyalty'

Ellison and the chairman of the panel, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, co-signed a letter Tuesday asking the Justice Department to explain whether the replacement of Heffelfinger was sought "as a matter of political loyalty."

Specifically, they asked whether actions related to enforcement of voter fraud statutes might have played a role in the departure of Heffelfinger and the subsequent selection of Paulose.

Paulose's leadership was challenged in mid-April, when three top lawyers in the Minnesota office resigned from their management posts after raising concerns about her management of the office.

This week, members of the Judiciary panel were provided copies of a new letter the three former managers sent to Paulose complaining about office morale and statements made to the press about their actions.

In Missouri, Graves faced questions about his interest in pursuing voting fraud cases, but he was also under fire because his wife had accepted lucrative contracts to run state automobile license offices.

Bond said in a statement yesterday that he was unaware that his aide had contacted the White House about Graves.

"With Missouri's long history of vote fraud concerns, it should be no surprise to anyone when law enforcement authorities pursue vote fraud allegations," he said. "But I had no contact, including with anyone in the administration or the U.S. Attorney's office on their work, the types of cases they should pursue or any specific cases."

The Kansas City Star has reported that in November 2005 Graves refused to sign a Justice Department complaint against the state of Missouri alleging that local election authorities, mostly in rural areas, had failed to properly maintain their voter registration lists.

Graves' replacement as U.S. attorney, Bradley Schlozman, had authorized the Justice Department lawsuit against Missouri when he was an official in the department's voting-rights section.

A U.S. district judge ruled against the government last month, saying that the Justice Department had produced no evidence of wrongdoing by state election officials.

Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger write for the Los Angeles Times.

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