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6 of 7 Dismissed U.S. Attorneys Had Positive Job Evaluations
Most of the firings came on Dec. 7, when senior Justice Department official Michael A. Battle -- a former U.S. attorney himself -- called at least six prosecutors to inform them that they were being asked to resign. Battle was apologetic but offered little in the way of explanations, telling some that the order had come from "on high," according to sources familiar with the calls.
In addition to Ryan in San Francisco, the prosecutors who were called that day included Carol S. Lam in San Diego, John McKay in Seattle, David C. Iglesias in New Mexico, Daniel G. Bogden in Nevada and Paul K. Charlton in Arizona. Cummins had been informed of his dismissal last summer but stayed until December.
The breaking point for Cummins and the others was testimony this month by Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest had been dismissed for "performance-related" reasons and that Cummins had been pushed out to make room for Griffin.
That testimony "was the moment the gloves came off," said one fired prosecutor who declined to be identified.
Five of the dismissed prosecutors -- Bogden, Charlton, Cummins, Iglesias and McKay -- told reporters that they were not given any reason for their firings and had not been told of any performance problems. Only one of the fired prosecutors, Ryan in San Francisco, faced substantive complaints about turnover or other management-related issues, officials said.
Justice Department officials in recent days have sought to clarify the performance comments, saying the dispute is mired in "semantics." The officials said McNulty was referring to policy differences between the Bush administration and some of its employees. One official also said that the department had not made a list of replacements ahead of time.
"When you are setting national policy, you cannot have U.S. attorneys setting their own policies," said a Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Bogden and Lam are among a handful of declared independents who worked as U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration. The rest of the group are viewed as moderate Republicans who have sometimes been at odds with their Washington bosses or more conservative Republicans.
In Seattle, for example, local Republicans complained to Gonzales about McKay's decision not to intervene in the disputed Washington gubernatorial race in 2006, which a Democrat eventually won by 129 votes.
Lam was the target of repeated complaints from conservative House Republicans, who asserted that she was lax in enforcing immigration laws. The Justice Department also points to drops in the number of firearms cases filed by her office.
Charlton in Arizona clashed with the Justice Department's headquarters on at least two occasions over murder cases in which he opposed seeking the death penalty, including one that prompted an outcry from Navajo groups opposed to the use of capital punishment. He was overruled in both cases, officials said.
"There was no public controversy about any of these; any controversy was within the Justice Department," said J. Grant Woods, a Republican and former Arizona attorney general.
But the cases that have gotten most of the attention among Democrats in Congress involve public-corruption investigations. In San Diego, Lam oversaw the probe that resulted in the guilty plea of then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican. Two others connected to that case, including a former senior CIA official, were indicted two days before Lam left the job on Thursday.
Bogden in Nevada and Charlton in Arizona were also in the midst of investigations targeting current or former Republican members of Congress when they were fired. And in New Mexico, Iglesias's office had been examining alleged wrongdoing involving state Democrats.
Gonzales, McNulty and other Justice Department officials have strongly denied that those investigations played a role in the dismissals.
"The department's commitment to pursuing prosecuting public-corruption cases is clear," said spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos. "Any suggestion that removal of these particular U.S. attorneys was political or in any way would harm ongoing investigations is 100 percent false."