By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 23, 2007
Two months before Bud Cummins was fired as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, a protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove was maneuvering with the Justice Department to take his place.
Last April, Tim Griffin, a Rove aide and longtime GOP operative, sent the attorney general's chief of staff a flattering letter about himself written by Cummins, the prosecutor he was trying to replace, internal e-mails released this week show. Rove and Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, were keenly interested in putting him in the position, e-mails reveal.
New documents also show that Justice and White House officials were preparing for President Bush's approval of the appointment as early as last summer, five months before Griffin took the job.
The unusual appointment of Griffin, now serving as the interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, has been one of the central issues in the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys, which led to this week's constitutional showdown between Congress and the White House over the testimony of some of Bush's closest advisers.
Some of the thousands of pages of e-mails released this week underscore the extraordinary planning and effort, at the highest levels of the Justice Department and White House, to secure Griffin a job running one of the smaller U.S. attorney's offices in the country.
The e-mails show how D. Kyle Sampson, then the attorney general's chief of staff, and other Justice officials prepared to use a change in federal law to bypass input from Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who had expressed doubts about placing a former Republican National Committee operative in charge of a U.S. attorney's office. The evidence runs contrary to assurances from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that no such move had been planned.
"This was a very loyal soldier to the Republicans and the Bush administration, and they wanted to reward him," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.). "They had every right to do this, but it's the way they handled it, and the way they tried to cover their tracks and mislead Congress, that has turned this into a fiasco for them."
Griffin declined to comment yesterday but said in a previous interview that he was being unfairly maligned by Democrats. He has announced that he will not seek Senate confirmation to become Little Rock's chief federal prosecutor but will remain until a replacement is found.
In political circles, Griffin is widely considered an aggressive and accomplished Republican political operative. He was research director at the RNC during Bush's 2004 campaign, and he went to work for Rove at the White House in 2005.
Administration officials and many Republicans say that regardless of politics, Griffin has the credentials to be U.S. attorney.
"He's more qualified to hold that position than most of the people who came to that job in the first term," said Mark Corallo, who worked as the Justice Department's communication director when John D. Ashcroft was attorney general. "How can anyone blame Karl Rove for weighing in on behalf of someone who worked for him who happens to be thoroughly qualified for the job?"
Griffin, raised in Magnolia, Ark., is a Tulane University Law School graduate who studied at Oxford and has spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the Judge Advocate General's Corps of the Army Reserve. His return to Little Rock came after a stint in Iraq.
Cummins's dismissal differs from the firings of the seven other ousted federal prosecutors in several respects. Cummins was told he was being removed last June, and the rest were told on Dec. 7. Justice Department officials also have not publicly said Cummins's departure was related to his performance in office, as they have with the others. They acknowledged last month that he was fired simply to make room for Griffin.
But documents show that Cummins was clearly a target of Sampson's two-year effort to fire a group of U.S. attorneys who did not qualify as what he called "loyal Bushies." He was recommended for removal as early as March 2005.
Cummins said he had no idea of those plans until he was notified of his firing last June. Sometime in the next couple of months, he said, it became clear that Griffin was going to get the job, and Cummins stepped aside in December.
"Was it because Tim Griffin was working for Karl Rove?" Cummins said this week. "I don't know, and I don't think it really matters at this point."
The e-mails, however, show just how aggressively Griffin sought the appointment. On April 27, for example, he used a private e-mail account to send a note to Sampson.
"Kyle, This might also be helpful," Griffin wrote, enclosing the flattering, four-paragraph note that Cummins had written nearly four years earlier, after Griffin had worked in his office as a special assistant U.S. attorney.
"Just thought you should have it," Griffin said.
By June 13, about a week before Cummins would be told he was losing his job, Sampson wrote to Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Gonzales, to tell her that a colleague had the necessary pre-nomination paperwork for Griffin. He said that he would speak the following morning with Michael A. Battle, chief of the office that oversees U.S. attorneys, and make sure that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty's office "knows that we are now executing this plan."
Sampson's note suggests the plan was not new: "I did tell them this was likely coming several months ago."
By July 25, a White House aide wrote to Sampson to ask whether she could begin trying to win over Pryor. "Is that a problem since he has not yet been nominated for U.S. attorney?" the aide wrote, referring to Griffin.
"If the president has already approved Griffin, then part of our 'consultation' (to meet the 'advice and consent' requirements of Constitution) would be to tell them we were going to start a BI on Griffin," Sampson replied six minutes later, using shorthand for a background investigation. "I assume this has already happened."
But Griffin was never formally nominated, in part because it became clear that Pryor was concerned about Griffin as a candidate, according to documents and officials. By August, Sampson and others were devising ways to hire Griffin into the Justice Department's criminal division until he could be moved into the U.S. attorney's spot.
On Aug. 18, Rove aide J. Scott Jennings used an RNC e-mail address to arrange a telephone call about Griffin with Sampson and Goodling. "Tell us when, Scott, and we'll be on it," Sampson wrote back.
Less than an hour later, Goodling wrote to Sampson to fill him in on the latest complications.
"We have a senator prob, so while wh is intent on nominating, scott thinks we may have a confirmation issue," she wrote. "The possible solution I suggested to scott was that we (DOJ) pick him up as a political . . . and then install him as an interim" U.S. attorney.
"I agree but don't think it really should matter where we park him here," Sampson replied, "as AG will appoint him forthwith to be USA."
Within days, the e-mails show, Justice officials had arranged to hire Griffin into a political position in headquarters, at a salary of $142,900, then transfer him immediately to work in the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock and await his nomination.
"Tim Griffin is here," Goodling wrote on Sept. 27, the morning he started at the agency.
As a result of this plan, Griffin had been in Little Rock for more than a month when he received an official Justice Department notice that he would be interviewed for the position of interim U.S. attorney. Goodling already had alerted him that the interview would be a formality, e-mails show.
Goodling and Battle, who had been told of the plan to install Griffin the previous spring, were two of the three interviewers during the session.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.