By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007 12:00 PM
A senior Justice Department official acknowledged yesterday that a top federal prosecutor in Arkansas was removed to make room for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove, but he said that six other U.S. attorneys were fired for "performance-related" issues.
In often contentious testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty also disputed Democrats' allegations that the firings appeared to be aimed at rewarding Republican allies and at avoiding the Senate's role in confirming U.S. attorney appointments.
"The attorney general's appointment authority has not and will not be used to circumvent the confirmation process," McNulty said. "All accusations in this regard are contrary to the clear factual record."
McNulty's remarks did little to calm the growing political storm over the recent U.S. attorney firings. Top Democrats have condemned the firings, which have led to proposed legislation that would limit the attorney general's powers to appoint interim prosecutors.
McNulty acknowledged that six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest were notified in December that they would be asked to step aside, including the lead prosecutor in San Diego, whose office oversaw the bribery conviction of a former Republican congressman.
A seventh former U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, has said that he was asked to leave last year to open the job for J. Timothy Griffin, who previously worked for Rove and for the Republican National Committee. McNulty did not dispute that characterization yesterday.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the firings "reek of politics" and warned McNulty that the panel would consider issuing subpoenas for job evaluations of the fired prosecutors unless the Justice Department agrees to hand them over. Justice officials said they will work to accommodate the request.
"What happened here doesn't sound like business as usual," Schumer said. "Even the hiring and firing of our top federal prosecutors has become infused and corrupted with political, rather than prudent, considerations."
McNulty responded later: "When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart. . . . Your perspective is completely contrary to my daily experience."
Several top lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have been particularly angered by a little-noticed provision slipped into USA Patriot Act legislation last year that allows Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to appoint replacement prosecutors, such as Griffin, on an indefinite basis.
Feinstein and other Democrats in the House and Senate have proposed legislation to return to the old selection process, which allowed district courts to appoint interim U.S. attorneys after 120 days until a final candidate was confirmed by the Senate. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, said yesterday he will join Democrats in pushing for a return to the previous arrangement.
But McNulty said the Justice Department is in "strong opposition" to that proposal because it puts the judicial branch in the position of hiring people in the executive branch.
Gonzales told the committee last month that the forced resignations were not politically motivated, but he declined to comment on details of the cases. McNulty went further in some of his testimony yesterday, talking at length about the Arkansas case and defending Griffin's record as a military and civilian prosecutor, in addition to his role as a prominent GOP operative.
In an unusual appearance as a committee witness, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) complained that Justice Department officials had initially misled him about Cummins's dismissal and said he could not support Griffin's nomination as U.S. attorney.
Griffin declined to comment yesterday.
The other case that has drawn significant ire from Democrats is in San Diego, where prosecutor Carol S. Lam was fired about a year after overseeing the guilty plea by former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) for taking $2.4 million in bribes. McNulty declined to comment on why Lam was removed, but he said the Cunningham case was "a very good thing for the American people and the Department of Justice to accomplish."
Justice Department officials say Lam presided over a drop in prosecutions of firearms and smuggling cases, and point to complaints from many lawmakers -- including Feinstein -- about lax immigration enforcement in the San Diego area.
Feinstein said in an interview that her concerns about border enforcement are "unrelated" to the question of whether the prosecutors were dismissed appropriately. "The issues are being confused," she said.
In addition to Cummins and Lam, those forced to resign include Kevin Ryan in San Francisco, John McKay in Seattle, David C. Iglesias in New Mexico, Daniel G. Bogden in Nevada and Paul K. Charlton in Arizona.
Mary Jo White, who was appointed U.S. attorney general for the Southern District of New York during the Clinton administration and then retained for a while under President Bush, told the committee that the firings were "unprecedented" and "troubling."
"The appearance . . . tends to undermine the importance of the office of the United States attorney," White said.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.