Prosecutor Picked to Investigate Firings of U.S. Attorneys
Criminal inquiry comes on recommendation of Justice Department investigators.
By Eric Lichtblau, Sharon Otterman
THE NEW YORK TIMES, September 30, 2008
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed a special prosecutor Monday to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other officials in connection with the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
The move came as the Justice Department released a 392-page report by its inspector general severely criticizing the process that led to the firings.
“The report makes plain that, at a minimum, the process by which nine U.S. attorneys were removed in 2006 was haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional, and the way in which the Justice Department handled those removals and the resulting public controversy was profoundly lacking,” Mukasey said in a statement. The report called for further investigation to determine whether prosecutable offenses were committed either in the firings or in testimony about them.
Nora Dannehy, acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, will lead the investigation, Mukasey said. The continuation of the inquiry leaves open the possibility that it won’t be finished before President Bush leaves office in January.
The inspector general has been trying since last year to determine who in the Bush administration ordered the firings, whether the dismissals were intended to thwart investigations, and whether anyone broke the law in carrying out the firings or in testifying about them. Critics say the firings were politically motivated.
U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president, but they cannot be fired for improper reasons.
Gonzales, who resigned last year after coming under criticism because of the firings, has been the main focus of interest, in part because several members of Congress charged that he might have perjured himself in his testimony through his memory lapses and misstatements about the firings.
In a statement issued by his attorney, Gonzales said, “My family and I are glad to have the investigation of my conduct in this matter behind us and we look forward to moving on to new challenges.”
Gonzales’ attorney George Terwilliger noted that the report found no unlawful conduct. “It seems rather odd,” Terwilliger said, “that rather than bring the investigation to a close, the department would escalate the matter to the attention of a prosecutor.”
The report found that primary blame for the “serious failures” in the firing process lay with Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, “who abdicated their responsibility to adequately oversee the process and ensure that the reasons for removal of each U.S. attorney were supportable and not improper.”
It also singled out for blame Gonzales’ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who supervised the firings. The report said he did not review formal evaluations of the attorneys’ performance or consult the department officials most knowledgeable about their performance.
In addition, Gonzales, McNulty, Sampson and other officials failed “to provide accurate and truthful statements about the removals and their role in the process,” the report says.
The report’s lead authors — Glenn Fine, the department’s inspector general, and H. Marshall Jarrett, the counsel for the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility — wrote that their investigation remains incomplete because of the refusal of certain key witnesses to be interviewed, including Karl Rove, the president’s former chief political adviser; Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel; Monica Goodling, the department’s former White House liaison; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; and Domenici’s chief of staff, Steven Bell.
In addition, they wrote, “the White House would not provide us with internal documents related to the removals of the U.S. attorneys.”
Though White House officials did not explicitly assert executive privilege as the reason they refused to hand over to investigators internal e-mail messages and other documents related to the firings, the White House counsel’s office said they were protected from disclosure because such material would “implicate White House confidentiality interests of a very high order,” the report says.
The dismissal that has drawn the most scrutiny is that of David Iglesias, who was fired as the U.S. attorney for New Mexico after he clashed with GOP officials over what they saw as his slow pursuit of Democrats in a corruption investigation. Several other fired prosecutors were also working on public corruption cases; critics have claimed they were dismissed because they were unwilling to carry out the White House’s political agenda.
The report singles out Iglesias’ firing as a key reason that a counsel should be appointed to “conduct further investigation, and ultimately determine whether the evidence demonstrates that any criminal offense was committed.”