By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
A former deputy attorney general lavished praise yesterday on most of the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired after he left the job, testifying that only one of them had serious performance problems.
James B. Comey, the Justice Department's second in command from 2003 until August 2005, also told a House Judiciary subcommittee that although he was the "direct supervisor" of all U.S attorneys, he was never informed about an effort by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and his aides to remove a large group of prosecutors that began in early 2005.
"My experience with the U.S. attorneys just listed was very positive," Comey said, referring to six of the former prosecutors who testified in Congress in March. He added that the reasons given for their firings "have not been consistent with my experience" and that "I had very positive encounters with these folks."
The testimony from Comey, a highly regarded former prosecutor who is now general counsel for Lockheed Martin, further undermines assertions by Gonzales and his aides that dissatisfaction with the prosecutors' work led to their dismissals. It also underscores the extent to which the firings, which originated in the White House, were handled outside the normal chain of command at Justice.
Comey's appearance followed revelations Wednesday that the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility are investigating whether a former Gonzales aide, Monica M. Goodling, illegally considered political affiliation in reviewing candidates for the positions of career assistant prosecutors in the offices of interim or acting U.S. attorneys.
A review of Justice Department records shows that at least three dozen of the 94 U.S. attorney's offices fell into that category at some point during Goodling's tenure as a senior counselor to Gonzales, which began in fall 2005. Officials have declined to provide details about the allegations or to say how many offices may have been affected.
Goodling has resigned and has refused to testify in Congress, invoking her right not to incriminate herself. The House Judiciary Committee has offered her immunity and is waiting to learn whether Justice would object on the grounds that immunity could compromise future prosecutions.
Comey said it was "very troubling" to hear allegations that political considerations may have been taken into account in the hiring of assistant U.S. attorneys, or AUSAs.
"I don't know how you would put that genie back in the bottle, if people started to believe we were hiring our AUSAs for political reasons," he said.
The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility are conducting an internal investigation of the removal of the eight U.S. attorneys last year, which has sparked an uproar in Congress and prompted lawmakers from both parties to call for Gonzales's resignation. President Bush has said that Gonzales will remain in his post.
Top Justice officials first said that all but one of the prosecutors were fired for performance issues, but documents released by the department later showed that perceived loyalty to Bush and his policies was a major factor and that most had good job reviews.
A Justice official said in a letter to Congress yesterday that the results of the internal Justice Department inquiry will be made public because of its "highly unusual nature."
The House and Senate Judiciary committees are also conducting parallel inquiries into the prosecutor firings and are continuing to interview Justice officials in advance of a scheduled appearance by Gonzales before the House committee next Thursday.
David Margolis, the top career official at the Justice Department, told congressional investigators Tuesday that in late 2004 or early 2005 he had a conversation with Justice aide D. Kyle Sampson and identified two of the fired prosecutors -- Margaret M. Chiara of Grand Rapids, Mich., and Kevin V. Ryan of San Francisco -- as having trouble managing their offices, according to congressional aides familiar with Margolis's account.
In November 2006, Margolis said, Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, showed him a list of six prosecutors the department intended to fire. It included Chiara but not Ryan, and Margolis said he was surprised that Ryan and another unidentified prosecutor were not on the list, according to the aides. Ryan was subsequently added.
Both Margolis and Comey dispute Sampson's characterizations that they were closely involved in the firings.
Comey testified that he had a 15-minute conversation with Sampson in February 2005 about prosecutors Comey considered weak performers. He said he had no idea until recently that the conversation was related to an effort by Sampson and the White House to identify and remove prosecutors considered insufficiently loyal.
Comey was effusive in his praise of several of the fired prosecutors, saying that only Ryan had serious management difficulties.
He described Paul K. Charlton of Arizona as "one of the best," said he had a "very positive view" of David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, and called Daniel G. Bogden of Las Vegas "straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy." Of John McKay of Seattle, Comey said: "I was inspired by him."
Perhaps most damaging to the Justice Department was Comey's description of Carol C. Lam of San Diego as "a fine U.S. attorney." He acknowledged that he was concerned about Lam's record on firearms cases but said he had discussed the issue with her and did not see it as a firing offense.
Comey said that while he was deputy attorney general he did not have much interaction with fired prosecutor Bud Cummins of Little Rock. But he called Cummins a "good man" in a recent e-mail exchange released yesterday, adding that he "will not sit by and watch good people smeared."
Staff writer Amy Goldstein and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.