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Judiciary Panel Senators to Be Briefed on Firings

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Paul McNulty is slated to brief members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a closed-door meeting Wednesday on the personnel records of a handful of U.S. attorneys around the country who recently were fired from their posts.

When pressed by Senators at a hearing last week, McNulty declined to discuss the specific reasons for the Justice Department’s dismissal of up to seven U.S. attorneys from California to Arkansas. Instead, he assented to a request from Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who serves as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman and Democratic Caucus vice chairman, to privately share such information with the Senators.

The decision heads off a battle with Schumer, who has pledged increased oversight of the Justice Department. Schumer had threatened to subpoena the personnel records if they were not provided.

But it is unclear whether Democratic Senators — who charge the Justice Department has politicized U.S. attorney appointments — will be satisfied with Wednesday’s briefing.

At last week’s hearing, Senators pressed the deputy attorney general for copies of job performance evaluations. It was unclear at press time whether McNulty simply will brief the Senators on the evaluations without actually providing the paperwork. The Justice Department did not return a call for comment.

“It’ll be a briefing,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “We’re not exactly sure what documents they’re going to show.”

Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the closed-door briefing would be open to all members of the committee.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is trying to bring legislation to the floor this week that would reverse a provision in the USA PATRIOT Act that allowed the Justice Department to indefinitely install interim U.S. attorneys. Though the Justice Department fiercely denies it, Democratic Senators charge that the department is trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee approved legislation by Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would strip the Justice Department of that power. Under their legislation, the attorney general could nominate an interim prosecutor for 120 days. After that, a district court judge would appoint a successor until a permanent prosecutor would be named.

Committee Republicans Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) voted for the legislation, but all other Republicans opposed it.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has vowed to block the bill if it gets to the floor.

One Republican Senate aide said GOP Senators were not yet heavily engaged in the issue, but “robust opposition” could be expected when they focus in on it. Another GOP aide expressed skepticism that there was enough time to bring the issue to the floor before the Presidents Day recess begins at the end of the week.

Last week’s hearing was controversial because McNulty admitted that Bud Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Arkansas, was let go without cause to install Timothy Griffin, a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove.

McNulty also revealed that six other prosecutors, including U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego, were dismissed in December for “performance-related” reasons, but he declined to elaborate publicly on the details. Expected to leave office Feb. 15, Lam won the guilty plea of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and the investigation into his illegal activities continues.

At the hearing, Schumer asked McNulty, a former House Judiciary Committee counsel, to answer a plethora of questions, including whether President Bush personally approved the firings, how the White House was involved and whether there was any dissent within Justice regarding the dismissals.

Specter tried to elicit a reason why Lam was fired but was rebuffed because McNulty said it was “unfair” to air personnel records publicly. Furthermore, McNulty argued that the written evaluations were “subjective” and a reason for a particular dismissal may not be readily apparent.

Congressional Republicans have argued that Lam was not aggressive enough in prosecuting smuggling and other crimes on the California border. Even Feinstein raised concerns about the weak prosecution of immigration-related cases in a June 15, 2006, letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

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.

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