By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007
A U.S. attorney in Seattle was singled out for dismissal in part because he clashed with senior Justice Department officials over the investigation of a federal prosecutor's murder, and he was recommended for removal 18 months earlier than was previously known, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews.
D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, told congressional investigators that he believes he may have recommended former U.S. attorney John McKay's removal in March 2005 because of conflicts with senior Justice officials over the investigation of the 2001 murder of federal prosecutor Tom Wales, according to congressional aides and Sampson's attorney.
Several officials familiar with the investigation said McKay and other officials in Seattle believed that senior Justice officials were not paying enough attention to the case. Sampson did not cite specifics, saying only that McKay had demanded actions that led to conflicts, congressional aides familiar with his account said.
The suggestion of a connection between the firing and the unsolved Wales murder case generated angry reactions from McKay and others in western Washington yesterday.
"The idea that I was pushing too hard to investigate the assassination of a federal prosecutor -- it's mind-numbing" that they would suggest that, McKay said. " . . . If it's true, it's just immoral, and if it's false, then the idea that they would use the death of Tom Wales to cover up what they did is just unconscionable."
McKay was among eight prosecutors fired last year after a nearly two-year process in which senior Justice and White House aides identified U.S. attorneys for removal based in part on their perceived disloyalty to the Bush administration and its policies. Gonzales and other Justice officials have provided shifting explanations for the firings, prompting congressional and Justice Department investigations into whether politics played an inappropriate role in the dismissals.
In a separate development, officials said that presidential adviser Karl Rove attended a crucial planning meeting March 5, the day before House testimony by Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella. Moschella and Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty have told congressional investigators that Rove attended the meeting along with White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding, Deputy Counsel William Kelley and other White House aides, congressional aides said.
McNulty and Moschella said that the meeting focused on how Moschella should describe the reasons for firing the eight prosecutors, and that none of the White House officials disclosed the extent of White House involvement in the dismissals at the session.
White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said yesterday that "it is not at all unusual, nor is it inappropriate, for people at the White House to meet with members of the administration before they are going up to testify in front of Congress."
Rove's involvement in the meeting was first described on Newsweek magazine's Web site.
The new McKay information, which became public this week, shows that he was recommended for dismissal in March 2005, just four months after a disputed gubernatorial election in Washington state. Republicans there complained about McKay's decision not to file charges of voter fraud because of a lack of evidence.
The information appears to undercut testimony from Gonzales, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that McKay was removed because of more recent disputes over an information-sharing system and budgetary issues.
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said an "inadvertent mistake," led to the release of a document that did not show McKay being recommended for removal in early 2005. A corrected copy was later sent to Congress but apparently not released to the public.
Roehrkasse declined to comment on Gonzales's testimony about McKay. Officials have said that Gonzales relied on Justice documents in reviewing the reasons behind the firings.
In his congressional interview, Sampson suggested that he heard complaints about McKay from former deputy attorney general Larry D. Thompson, who served from 2001 to 2003. Thompson, now an executive at PepsiCo, was out of the office yesterday and did not respond to a telephone message.
Sampson said he was not aware of GOP complaints about McKay's handling of vote fraud allegations, congressional aides said. McKay has said that he was called about the probe in late 2004 by a staff member to Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), and quizzed about his alleged "mishandling" of the case two years later during a White House interview for a judgeship.
Sampson's attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, declined to comment beyond confirming his client's general remarks to investigators.
The alleged connection between the Wales investigation and McKay's firing was first raised Thursday during questioning of former deputy attorney general James B. Comey at a congressional hearing and received wide notice in Seattle news media yesterday. Comey said that McKay "cared very passionately about finding the person who killed" Wales.
Charles Mandigo, who at the time of Wales's murder was special agent in charge of Seattle's FBI office, recalled that McKay, his staff and FBI agents all felt "a little bit neglected" because they did not receive the support they expected for the Wales murder investigation.
McKay's advocacy for the investigation was never "more than normal interplay," said Mandigo, who retired in 2003. "Did he push it? Yeah, he pushed it. Was he ardent? Yeah, he was ardent about it, and I think he should have been."
No Justice official traveled from Washington for Wales's memorial service, Mandigo said, "which I don't think set a very good tone."
Last October, Gonzales was invited to attend the fifth anniversary commemoration of Wales's death, but sent Michael A. Battle, director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Battle was the official who made the calls two months later, firing McKay and the other prosecutors.
Battle has since left the Justice Department. Officials yesterday named Kenneth E. Melson, the first assistant prosecutor in Alexandria, as his successor.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.