Prosecutor Firings Not Political, Gonzales Says

Speaking in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alberto R. Gonzales responds to questions about the removal of at least six U.S. attorneys.
Speaking in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alberto R. Gonzales responds to questions about the removal of at least six U.S. attorneys. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged yesterday that some U.S. attorneys have been asked to resign their posts in recent weeks because of performance issues, but he denied any political motives and vowed to quickly submit new nominees for the jobs to the Senate for confirmation.

"What we're trying to do is ensure that for the people in each of these respective districts, we have the very best possible representative for the Department of Justice," Gonzales testified, adding later: "I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it."

Gonzales's remarks in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee came in response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers about the forced removals of at least six U.S. attorneys, including several who have overseen some of the government's highest-profile corruption prosecutions.

Officials say the removals include those of Carol C. Lam in San Diego, who led the corruption prosecution of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), and Kevin V. Ryan in San Francisco, who has handled the probe into a lab at the center of a sports doping scandal involving baseball player Barry Bonds and other athletes.

Another recent change that has attracted widespread criticism from Democrats came in Arkansas, where U.S. Attorney H.E. Cummins III of Little Rock was replaced on an interim basis by J. Timothy Griffin, a former research director for the Republican National Committee.

Feinstein said she knows of at least six cases in which prosecutors have been asked to leave. She said she is concerned about the way the firings have been handled and about whether the Justice Department is attempting to evade Senate oversight of U.S. attorneys.

A little-noticed provision of last year's USA Patriot Act reauthorization legislation allows the attorney general to pick an interim U.S. attorney for an indefinite period of time.

"I'm very concerned, because, technically, under the Patriot Act, you can appoint someone without confirmation for the remainder of the president's term," Feinstein said. "I don't believe you should do that. We are going to try to change the law back."

Gonzales said the administration has no intention of avoiding confirmation hearings and said the department has forwarded six nominations to the Senate and is working on five more.

As far as prosecutors who have been asked to leave, Gonzales characterized the changes as routine personnel decisions based on evaluations of each prosecutor's performance. He declined to tell Feinstein how many prosecutors were asked to resign.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) came to Gonzales's defense, noting that the prosecutors in question were hired by the current administration.

"I find it unusual that some of my colleagues are critical of replacing Bush appointees," Cornyn said.

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