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Senators Press Officials on U.S. Attorney Firings

Turning up the heat on the Bush administration on an increasingly touchy issue, Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Deputy U.S. Attorney General Paul McNulty on Tuesday over why and how as many as seven U.S. attorneys around the country were dismissed from their posts since June.

Led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the lawmakers aggressively questioned the Justice Department’s motives in firing up to six prosecutors in December, including San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who is credited with producing the 2005 guilty plea of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) to accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Lam is leaving office Feb. 15, but the probe into Cunningham’s activities continues.

“I have observed, with increasing alarm, how politicized the Department of Justice has become,” Schumer said in his opening statement. “And now, it appears, even the hiring and firing of our top federal prosecutors has become infused and corrupted with political, rather than prudent, considerations.”

Schumer repeatedly pressed McNulty, a former chief Hill counsel during former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings and ex-House ethics committee lawyer, to provide documentation, such as written evaluations of each U.S. attorney’s job performance, that would substantiate why the attorneys were fired. If that information is not provided quickly, the Democrat threatened to subpoena that information from Justice. “For six years, there has been little or no oversight of the Department of Justice. Those days are over,” Schumer vowed.

In a strong opening statement putting Justice on the defensive, Schumer’s comments were echoed by the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a former Pennsylvania assistant attorney general.

“If a U.S. attorney general was fired in retaliation for what was done on the prosecution of former Congressman Cunningham, that’s wrong,” Specter stated. “And that’s wrong even though the president has the power to terminate U.S. attorneys. U.S. attorneys can’t function if they’re going to be afraid of the consequences of a vigorous prosecution.”

Arguing that the executive branch has created an atmosphere of “high-level suspicion” in Congress, Specter said that Senate oversight on the U.S. attorneys issue should move full-steam ahead. “I want to see this inquiry pursued … I want it pursued in each one of these cases and see what actually went on because there are very serious accusations that are made that, if they’re true, there ought to be very, very substantial action taken in our oversight function.”

McNulty strenuously denied any political motivation for the dismissal of the prosecutors, explaining that it was part of normal staff turnover. “The indisputable fact is that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president,” he said. While he refused to confirm the exact number of prosecutors dismissed recently, McNulty did say that several were let go for “performance-based” reasons in phone calls during December 2006. McNulty declined, however, to provide a specific reason for Lam’s dismissal, arguing that it would be “unfair” to individual prosecutors to discuss their private personnel records in public.

“What happened in the prosecution of Congressman Cunningham was a very good thing,” McNulty said, describing Justice as “proud” of that outcome. “Any investigation that falls from that has to run its full course.”

“Public corruption is a top priority for the president,” McNulty added.

McNulty, however, did not dispute Schumer’s assertion that another U.S. attorney — Bud Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Arkansas — was dismissed without any specific cause. Democrats allege that Cummins was asked to step aside in order to install Tim Griffin, a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a former Arkansas attorney general who testified before the committee, praised Cummins’ record and said he did not believe he could support Griffin if his nomination was ultimately sent to the Senate for confirmation.

“As more light was shed on the situation in Arkansas, it became clear that Bud Cummins was asked to resign without cause so that the White House could reward the Arkansas post to Mr. Griffin,” Pryor testified.

Led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Democrats have been slamming the administration over the U.S. attorneys issue for several weeks now. Besides arguing that the dismissals are politically motivated, they also charge that the Justice Department is attempting to circumvent the Senate confirmation process by installing interim U.S. attorneys whom it has no intention of ever formally nominating. The Justice Department fiercely denies that charge and says it intends to send all U.S. attorney candidates for nomination to the Hill.

Feinstein lists seven U.S. attorneys recently asked to step aside by Justice: Lam, Cummins, Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, John McKay of Washington and Paul Charlton of Arizona. Besides Lam, none of the prosecutors is involved in identified Congressional cases.

Feinstein and Specter appear to have agreed on compromise legislation to reverse a 2006 amendment to the USA PATRIOT Act that allowed Justice to indefinitely appoint interim U.S. attorneys. The legislation, which is slated to be marked up on Thursday, would allow Justice to install a replacement attorney for 120 days; after that, the authority would be transferred to a district court judge until a permanent replacement was found.

Committee Republicans largely defended the administration while noting that political interference in prosecutions was a serious matter if it were proved true. “U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “The president can remove them for any reason … that’s the the law.”

Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions raised the fact that several House Members, including California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, had complained about Lam’s record on prosecuting smuggling and other crimes along the California border. “I think we need to look at these appointments maybe in the future more carefully,” Sessions said.

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