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Sorting it all out: The controversy over the firing of several US attorneys

I’m still trying sorting through and make an assessment from all the news stories [1] about the eight US attorneys who were fired last year by the Justice Department, especially seeing how new information about this story comes out everyday. Captain Ed [2] has the latest news [3], which talks about how WH counsel Harriet Miers had initially suggested all 93 US attorneys be fired after the 2004 elections because of complaints that they had not pursued allegations of voter fraud vigorously enough. Ed writes:

[Gonzeles Chief of Staff Kyle D.] Sampson eventually coordinated with Miers on the limited dismissals, but that happened in January 2006, almost a year before the bulk of the firings. Sampson created a list of prosecutors ranked by effectiveness and loyalty to White House initiatives, and broken into three groups: high, low, and no opinion. Oddly, the terminated prosecutors came from both the high- and low-ranked groups. Three of the seven came from the bottom tier, but two of them — David Iglesias and Kevin Ryan. Iglesias has alleged political interference by Pete Domenici and other unnamed Republican legislators, while Ryan’s staff is apparently delighted to see him leave.

One question that these memos raise is why it took so long to dismiss these prosecutors if they were performing so badly. Sampson compiled that ranking list two years ago this month. The effort seemed to be back-burnered until September of last year, when new rules on appointment of interim federal prosecutors made their way through Congress as part of a homeland-security bill. The new rules allow Justice and the White House to forego Senate approval on interim appointments, and the terminations commenced almost immediately after the law went into effect.

If competence and performance were the reasons for the terminations, why did Justice wait almost two years to do anything about it?

Sampson’s memos indicate that Domenici had exercised more political pressure than he has previously admitted in getting Iglesias canned. Iglesias — ranked among the high-performing group in March 2005 — had not acted with enough alacrity in charging Democrats in New Mexico for corruption, especially with the midterm elections approaching. Domenici called him to inquire about the status, a call he said was merely informative and not intended to pressure Iglesias. Yet one of Miers’ aides noted in one memo that Domenici’s chief of staff “is [as] happy as a clam” at Iglesias’ dismissal. In another memo a week later, Sampson replied that Domenici would forward names for a replacement the next day, because the Senator was “not even waiting for Iglesias’s body to cool”.

Again, prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the President, and as with any other political appointment, they can be asked to leave when the pleasure becomes all theirs. However, prosecutors have tremendous power and should be free of undue political pressure. Just as with any other prosecutors, they represent all of the People and have a responsibility to ensure that filing charges serves the cause of justice, and not just indict people to pump up their resumés. Otherwise, trust in the system of justice breaks down. This situation looks suspiciously like some people forgot that basic premise.

The Justice Department and WH have obligations to ensure that US attorneys are doing their jobs and from this story it sounds to me like they hadn’t been satisfied for a while. The political pressure (if any) on Iglesias, it appears, came more from Republican members of Congress from New Mexico (Senator Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson) than it did from the WH. The key question from Ed is, though, if they were so dissatisfied with the attorneys, then why did it take two years to let them go? Also, if the WH really wanted to ‘purge’ US attorneys, as has been so widely implied in media stories and lefty blogs, why did they only settle on 8 and not go for the gusto and get rid of many more? Is it possible that this really wasn’t so much about politics and but more about dissatisfaction over the performance of the attorneys who were let go?

As always, remember that the hype you get from the MSM is usually that, and that almost always there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Stay tuned …

Update: More from James Joyner [4]:

So, here’s my understanding of the scandal:

  • The president expresses displeasure that some of his political appointees are not doing their job.
  • His White House Counsel suggests firing everybody, whether they’re doing their job or not.
  • His senior strategist says not to do that.
  • Staffers go through the records and identify the 7 of 93 prosecutors (7.53%) who aren’t prosecuting a whole category of violations of federal law.
  • The Attorney General fires those 7 political appointees.

Am I missing something here?

Were these firings “politically motivated”? I suppose so, although only under the broadest definition of that term. Then again, they are political appointees, not career civil servants. Presumably, they have that status because it was understood that U.S. Attorneys are policy makers, assigned to not only carry out the law but respond to the orders of the Chief Executive of the United States.

If they were being fired because they were prosecuting the president’s friends, that would be a problem. Similarly, if they were fired because they refused to prosecute the president’s enemies, that would be a problem. If the president or the AG were “suggesting” that specific people be singled out for selective prosecution of crimes, that would also be of concern.

From what I’m reading here, though, it sounds like these people were simply refusing to investigate and prosecute the generic class of voter fraud cases. Why can’t political appointees have their appointments stripped for that?