By Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 10, 2007
The former U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., Todd P. Graves, said yesterday that he was asked to step down from his job by a senior Justice Department official in January 2006, months before eight other federal prosecutors would be fired by the Bush administration.
Graves said he was told simply that he should resign to "give another person a chance." He said he did not oppose the department's request, because he had already been planning to return to private practice. He did appeal to Missouri's senior senator to try to persuade the White House to allow him to remain long enough to prosecute a final, important case -- involving the slaying of a pregnant woman and kidnapping of her 8-month fetus. Justice officials rejected the request.
The former prosecutor's disclosure, in an interview on the eve of a second appearance today by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales before lawmakers investigating the firings, means that the administration began moving to replace U.S. attorneys five months earlier than was previously known. It also means that at least nine prosecutors were asked to resign last year, a deviation from repeated suggestions by Gonzales and other senior Justice officials in congressional testimony and other public statements that the firings did not extend beyond the eight prosecutors already known to have been forced out.
Gonzales is to testify before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, three weeks after he was grilled on the issue by Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Graves said he received a telephone call shortly after New Year's Day 2006 from Michael A. Battle, then director of the department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. Graves said Battle told him that department officials wanted to change leadership in the Kansas City office, emphasizing "there are no performance issues."
The characterization -- that Graves was being moved out simply to give someone else a turn -- is practically identical to the explanation that Bud Cummins, the former U.S. attorney in Little Rock, has said he was given last June, when he, too, was asked to leave. He was replaced by a former aide to President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove. The seven other U.S. attorneys were dismissed on a single day in December.
Graves said his conversation with Battle "made clear to me the fact I was getting a push."
"I felt like I was no longer welcome in the department," he said. "It wasn't like I was trying to hang on."
Battle did not respond to calls placed to his home and law office last night.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) confirmed yesterday that Graves had contacted the senator's office after the Justice official suggested he leave -- and that the senator had asked the White House for an extension of Graves's tenure, which was not granted.
Graves announced his resignation on March 10, 2006, and left the office two weeks later.
A Justice spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, declined last night to comment on Graves's remarks.
The brother of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Todd Graves is a former state prosecutor and was a GOP candidate for state treasurer. The Bush administration installed him as the chief federal prosecutor for western Missouri in 2001.
The same month he was asked to step down, Graves's name was included in a Jan. 9, 2006, list assembled by Gonzales's then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, of seven U.S. attorneys the administration was considering forcing from their jobs. That April, Sampson sent another e-mail noting that two of the prosecutors on that list had already left. Three names, including Graves's, were redacted when Justice officials released the January list.
Graves said yesterday that he never knew he was on the list and was not given a specific reason he was asked to leave.
During the spring of 2005, an aide to Bond urged the White House to replace Graves, because the prosecutor's wife and brother-in-law recently had been given state patronage contracts to run private offices for driver's licenses and other motor vehicle services. A spokeswoman for Bond confirmed that interaction but said Justice officials later told the senator's staff that the contracts issue was not why the administration wanted him to leave.
Graves acknowledged that he had twice during the past few years clashed with Justice's civil rights division over cases, including a federal lawsuit involving Missouri's voter rolls that Graves said a Washington Justice official signed off on after he refused to do so. That official, Bradley J. Schlozman, was appointed as interim U.S. attorney to succeed Graves, remaining for a year until the Senate this spring confirmed John Wood for the job. Wood was a counselor to the deputy attorney general and is a son of Bond's first cousin, although the senator's spokeswoman, Shana Marchio, said Bond did not recommend him for the job.
Schlozman had been a controversial figure in Justice's civil rights division for stances on voting rights. After he arrived in Kansas City, he came under fire from Democrats for pushing forward with an indictment of voter-registration activists in Missouri just weeks before last November's elections. Now a lawyer for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Schlozman was tentatively scheduled to testify next Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But Justice and legislative aides said yesterday that Schlozman has requested more time to prepare his testimony.
In Gonzales's prepared statement for today's House hearing, the attorney general refers three times to the resignations of eight prosecutors. In his remarks last month in the Senate, he also referred to "every U.S. attorney who was asked to resign," and then proceeded to name the eight who had previously been identified as having been fired.
Most of Gonzales's prepared remarks for today are identical to those he delivered last month in the Senate, including an apology for the way the firings were handled along with strong assertions that "nothing improper" occurred during the dismissals. Gonzales will also reassert that he did not identify any of the prosecutors to be removed and will lay much of the responsibility for the process on his former chief of staff, according to his statement.
"I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way," Gonzales says in the prepared statement.
The attorney general's reprised themes come despite new allegations and developments in recent weeks that have provided further challenges to earlier claims by Gonzales and other Justice officials. Officials announced last week, for example, that former Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling faces an internal Justice Department probe into whether she violated federal law or department rules by considering political affiliation in reviewing the hiring of career prosecutors.
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee, said she is "not unduly optimistic" that Gonzales will be more forthcoming with his answers to Democratic questions about who was responsible for putting names of prosecutors on the firing lists.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.