Firing of US attorneys. Most of the country’s 93 US attorneys are usually replaced within the first 2 years of a new administration and this is what happened when Bush came into office in 2001. US attorneys are political appointees and are chosen to reflect the policy priorities of a President. Still their primary job is to uphold the law, and the law is not supposed to be partisan. Karl Rove, of course, had other ideas. He believes that government should be politicized and populated with compliant partisan hacks loyal to him and his.
The plan was to create a list of political hires and fires of US attorneys under the direction of the White House (i.e. Rove and Harriet Miers) which Gonzales (and Bush) would then dutifully sign off on. There were two components. First, on February 7, 2006, regulations were published giving Attorney General Alberto Gonzales the power to hire and fire all non-civil service employees of the Justice Department (DOJ). On March 1, 2006, Gonzales signed an order delegating this power (subject to his nominal final approval) to two fairly junior and inexperienced staffers: Monica "Loyalty oaths" Goodling his senior counselor and liaison with the White House and his Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson. Second, sometime late in 2005 (shortly before the conference report for the Patriot Act Extension was filed on December 8, 2005), language originating at the DOJ was surreptitiously inserted into the act by Brett Tolman (see 97) which allowed Gonzales to make indefinite interim US attorney appointments without Senate approval. The conference report was passed and became law on March 9, 2006. So again, the two parts were first to set up a system where Rove could control the hiring and firing of US attorneys and second to bypass the Senate confirmation process which might interfere with the first part.
On December 7, 2006, eight US attorneys were notified that they would be fired. Most came from swing states. Most were considered not to have aggressively enough prosecuted Democrats or voter fraud cases in the run up to November 2006 elections, the idea being that such prosecutions would have helped Republicans in close elections. Worse some were investigating and had even prosecuted prominent Republicans. And then there were those partisan hacks waiting in the wings to replace them.
- Carol Lam, Southern California, convicted Rep. Duke Cunningham and indicted the former No. 3 at the CIA Dusty Foggo.
- H. E. Cummins III, Eastern Arkansas, had been asked to investigate the Republican Governor in the neighboring state of Missouri. He announced the investigation finished in October 2006 a month before the election but was fired anyway to make way for Timothy Griffin, an aide to Karl Rove who had been the principal opposition researcher in the Bush 2004 campaign.
- David Iglesias, New Mexico, angered Republican Senator Pete Domenici and Representative Heather Wilson when he refused to push for indictments of Democratic officials before the election after they inappropriately contacted him.
- Daniel Bogden, Nevada, similarly was replaced by Brett Tolman who was crucial to bypassing Senate scrutiny of these appointments.
- Paul K. Charlton, Arizona, was investigating Republican Representative Rick Renzi for corruption.
- John McKay, Western Washington, angered state Republicans for not creating voter fraud cases in the 2004 Governor’s race which Democrat Christine Gregoire won by 129 votes.
- Margaret Chiara, Western Michigan. It is not clear why she was fired. She was on the Native American Issues Subcommittee (NAIS) of US attorneys. It may have been to make way for Russell Stoddard who had been languishing out in Guam as First Assistant Attorney after Frederick Black got demoted for investigating Abramoff’s activities in the North Marianas. In July 2008, it came out that Monica "It’s against my religion" Goodling may have sought to remove Chiara because of unsubstantiated rumors that she was in a lesbian relationship with an Assistant US Attorney Leslie Hagen (see item 336).
- Kevin V. Ryan, Northern California, is the only one of the 8 who deserved to be on the list because he did run his office poorly. DOJ actually wanted to keep him on but a federal judge forced the issue and his name was added to the list.
A 9th US Attorney Todd Graves (Western District of Missouri) was asked to resign before the others on January 24, 2006. This resignation took place under pressure from Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) as payback for frictions his office was having with Sam Graves, a Republican Representative also from Missouri and Todd Graves’ brother.
As they say, it is not the crime but the coverup. Gonzales has given so many different and contradictory stories about the firings that it is hard to keep up and then there is his memory. In his Senate testimony of April 19, 2007, he answered he couldn’t remember by some counts 71 times. He didn’t know who had called for such a list. He couldn’t remember having been very involved in the process. He even forgot to mention the March 1, 2006 order in his testimony. In fact, he knew very little about what were major decisions at the department he supposedly ran but, despite this, he did know there was nothing improper in any of it. Testifying in the House on May 10, 2007, his memory and his believability were little improved. Kyle Sampson too had memory problems but did contradict Gonzales’ claim that he had not been involved. For his part, Sampson described himself as just the guy that others dropped their files off to and his contribution to the process was to keep them in his desk drawer. Initially, Monica Goodling took an indefinite leave of absence, then resigned, then said she would take the 5th in any Congressional testimony. On May 23, 2007, after a grant of immunity she testified that Paul McNulty the Deputy Attorney General was more aware of events surrounding the firings (although this is far from clear), that she had crossed the line (i.e. broken the law) in asking career DOJ hires about their political affiliations, that Gonzales’ statements were inaccurate (i.e. he lied), and that Gonzales had sought to harmonize their stories (i.e. obstruct justice). Goodling, like Sampson, tried to portray herself as a bit player despite Gonzales’ extraordinary grant of authority to them both. On June 21, 2007, Paul McNulty testified before the Congress and basically stonewalled, saying that he was out of the loop, that he didn’t know who created the firing list, that there was no problem at the DOJ, and that there was no contradiction between his testimony and that of anyone else, including Monica Goodling. On July 11, 2007, Sara Taylor who left her post of White House political director in May randomly invoked Executive privilege and otherwise and like so many others had a bad memory. She did state that she had had no dealings with Bush concerning the firings. Along with her selective use of Executive privilege, this contention further undermined the claim that an Executive privilege was involved and left the possibility of a contempt citation. An unintentionally revealing insight into the mindset of those who work for this Administration came in Taylor’s testimony when she stated, “I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously.” Her oath was, of course, not to the President but to defend the Constitution. On July 12, 2007, former White House counsel Harriet Miers refused to appear pursuant to a House Judiciary Committee subpoena, leaving her open to contempt proceedings as well.
From this use of Executive privilege, it is clear that the White House, and more specifically Karl Rove, was involved in the firings and was, in fact, calling the shots in this affair, and that those at Justice, including the Attorney General, were just the eager, if dim, facilitators of it.
In addition to the Sampson and Goodling resignations, Michael Battle Director of the Executive Office for US Attorneys (EOUSA) who informed the US attorneys of their firing left the DOJ on March 16, 2007. Paul McNulty the No. 2 at the DOJ and Deputy Attorney General announced his resignation on May 14, 2007 to become effective later in the summer. Although left out of the loop on the details of the firings and giving false Congressional testimony as a result for which he apologized, McNulty did approve the firings and through his Chief of Staff Michael Elston warned several of those fired to stay quiet about them. Elston announced his resignation on June 15, 2007. On June 22, 2007, Bill Mercer who was Acting Associate Attorney General (the No. 3 spot at the DOJ) withdrew his nomination for the permanent position. On August 27, 2007, Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation as Attorney General effective September 17, 2007.
The DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) informed the Senate in June 2007 that it was investigating Goodling’s claim that Gonzales had tried to tamper with her testimony.
Congress intervened and changed the relevant provision of the Patriot Act to re-instate the Senate’s role in confirming US attorneys (May 22, 2007). This was signed into law June 14, 2007. Provocatively, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales continued to make interim appointments right up to the Presidential signing.
In September 2008, the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility issued a joint report on the US Attorney firings. Their investigation was hampered by an unprecedented lack of cooperation from within the Executive Branch itself. Not only did major players like Harriet Miers and Karl Rove decline to be interviewed but the White House refused to provide relevant materials or redacted them to the point of rendering them useless. Even more extraordinary Justice’s own Office of Legal Counsel (which now acts as more of an adjunct of the White House in the Justice Department) also refused to share materials. Monica Goodling, of course, declined to cooperate as did Senators Kit Bond (R-MO) and Pete Domenici (R-NM).
As happens in most IG reports, this one pulled its punches. It sought to ascertain if there was a credible rationale for each of the firings, an approach fundamentally at odds with the political nature of the firing process itself. Chiara might have been fired for performance reasons and not sexual orientation. With Lam, it might have been about guns and immigration. McKay, a disagreement about a file sharing system. Charlton, a death penalty case. But all these miss the point. Credible rationales were not the object of the exercise.
As the report concludes:
. . . the process the Department used to select the U.S. Attorneys for removal was fundamentally flawed, and the oversight and implementation of the removal process by the Department’s most senior leaders was seriously lacking. In particular, we found that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty failed to adequately supervise the U.S. Attorney selection and removal process, and they were remarkably unengaged in the process. Instead, Chief of Staff to the Attorney General Kyle Sampson, with very little input from other Department officials, designed, selected, and implemented the removal process, with little supervision or oversight.
This is certainly damning, but it still invites us to accept an incredible scenario, that the senior management of the Justice Department, faced with significant high level personnel changes in which they either had a direct say or substantial interest, simply took a walk, asked no questions, and left it all in the hands of a virtual nobody. While this DOJ OIG-OPR report fills in details, the real story behind the US Attorney firings remains to be told.