By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 14, 2007
The attorney general's former top aide identified five Bush administration insiders as potential replacements for sitting U.S. attorneys months before those prosecutors were fired, contrary to repeated suggestions from the Justice Department that no such list had been drawn up, according to documents released yesterday.
E-mails sent to the White House in January and May of 2006 by D. Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, name potential replacements for U.S. attorneys in San Diego, San Francisco, Little Rock and Grand Rapids, Mich.
The disclosures contrast with previous statements from Sampson and other Justice officials. They have said that only Tim Griffin, a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove who was later appointed the top federal prosecutor in Little Rock, had been identified as a replacement candidate before the dismissals of the sitting U.S. attorneys.
"These documents uncover one of the most central and disconcerting contradictions we've seen so far," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "We have been told that there were no backups in mind to replace the fired U.S. attorneys, and these documents make it clear that there were."
Sampson's attorney and a Justice spokesman said yesterday that the candidates listed were only tentative suggestions and were never seriously considered. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the list "reflects Kyle Sampson's initial thoughts" and "in no way contradicts the department's prior statements" about the lack of a candidate list.
Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that on Dec. 7, when seven U.S. attorneys were sacked, "I did not have in mind any replacements for any of the seven who were asked to resign."
The names of the potential replacements were part of nearly 2,400 pages of documents related to the firings released by the Justice Department yesterday. They include more complete versions of e-mails and memos previously released.
The documents provide new details about a range of topics, including the Justice Department's focus on its prosecutors' conservative political credentials and the evolving justifications for the firings.
The release came as Gonzales continued intensive preparations for testimony next Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democrats plan to focus on the Justice Department's numerous conflicting statements about the firings and on Gonzales's shifting explanations of his role. A number of Republicans have joined Democrats in demanding that Gonzales resign.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired in December, and another was dismissed earlier in 2006, as part of a plan that originated in the White House to replace some prosecutors based in part on their perceived disloyalty to President Bush and his policies. The uproar over the removals has grown amid allegations that some Republican lawmakers improperly contacted prosecutors about investigations and assertions by Democrats that the firings may have been an attempt to disrupt public-corruption probes.
The possible replacements listed by Sampson in early 2006 were all high-level administration officials, including two suggestions for San Diego who were later given other U.S. attorney postings: Jeffrey A. Taylor, now chief prosecutor in the District, and Deborah Rhodes, now the U.S. attorney in Alabama. Both were career prosecutors in San Diego before taking senior Justice jobs.
Other candidates included Rachel L. Brand, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, who was considered to replace western Michigan's prosecutor, and Daniel Levin, a former senior Justice and White House official who was listed as a San Francisco candidate, the memos show.
Sampson, who resigned as Gonzales's top aide last month, said in prepared Senate testimony last month that "none of the U.S. attorneys was asked to resign in favor of a particular individual who had already been identified to take the vacant spot," except for the prosecutor in Little Rock.
Sampson's attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, said yesterday that "testimony regarding the consideration of replacements was entirely accurate" and that "Kyle had none in mind" at the time the firings were carried out.
"Some names had been tentatively suggested for discussion much earlier in the process, but by the time the decision to ask for the resignations was made, none had been chosen to serve as a replacement," he said.
Roehrkasse said that Brand had expressed interest in becoming the U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids but later decided against it.
One document also raises new questions about the firing of prosecutor David C. Iglesias in New Mexico, who has testified that he felt pressured by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) to speed up indictments of Democrats before last November's elections.
Two pages of handwritten notes by Monica M. Goodling, until recently Gonzales's senior counselor, include this criticism of Iglesias: "Domenici says he doesn't move cases." The notes are undated but appear amid a set of documents relating to meetings in February of this year.
Domenici and Wilson have admitted calling Iglesias but have denied pressuring him. Domenici called Gonzales or his deputy four times to complain about Iglesias, and Gonzales also fielded complaints about him last fall from Bush and Rove.
The documents show the evolution of March 6 testimony from William E. Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, to a House subcommittee. Draft versions written just days before he appeared begin with a declaration that Justice "strongly opposes" efforts to revoke Gonzales's new authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The scandal mushroomed in ensuing days, however, and Moschella's testimony was reshaped as the department backed down on the legislation.
The documents also reveal new details about the Justice Department's efforts to contain the political damage as controversy over the firings grew. On March 5, for example, chief Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos sent an e-mail to White House aides saying that Moschella should focus on admitting mistakes related to how prosecutors were notified of their dismissals.
"We are trying to muddy the coverage up a bit by trying to put the focus on the process in which they were told," Scolinos wrote, adding that "I don't know if the Senate Dems will let this go until it is all out in the open."
Also released yesterday was a chart given to Gonzales in February that noted U.S. attorneys' political backgrounds and whether they were members of the Federalist Society, a coalition of conservative lawyers and legal scholars with close ties to the Bush administration. It is not clear when the chart was compiled, nor is it clear whether the Federalist Society information is accurate.
Another document, compiling internal Justice Department "talking points" about the fired prosecutors, disparages two U.S. attorneys -- in identical language -- about immigration enforcement.
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.