By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 17, 2007
The Justice Department considered dismissing many more U.S. attorneys than officials have previously acknowledged, with at least 26 prosecutors suggested for termination between February 2005 and December 2006, according to sources familiar with documents withheld from the public.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified last week that the effort was limited to eight U.S. attorneys fired since last June, and other administration officials have said that only a few others were suggested for removal.
In fact, D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, considered more than two dozen U.S. attorneys for termination, according to lists compiled by him and his colleagues, the sources said.
They amounted to more than a quarter of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys. Thirteen of those known to have been targeted are still in their posts.
It is unclear how many knew they had been considered for removal. When asked yesterday about her inclusion on the lists, U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby of Maine said: "Really? I wasn't aware of that." Silsby's name crops up frequently, first in February 2005 and subsequently three more times, most recently a month before most of the dismissals were carried out last December.
The number of names on the lists demonstrates the breadth of the search for prosecutors to dismiss. The names also hint at a casual process in which the people who were most consistently considered for replacement were not always those ultimately told to leave.
When shown the lists of firing candidates late yesterday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most outspoken critic of the way Gonzales handled the prosecutor dismissals, said they "show how amok this process was."
"When you start firing people for invalid reasons, just about anyone can end up on a list," he said. "It looks like the process was out of control, and if it hadn't been discovered, more would have been fired."
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department would not confirm which U.S. attorneys were included on the lists. He said they "reflect Kyle Sampson's thoughts for discussion during the consultation process" and were often compiled long before the bulk of the firings were carried out.
"Whether they are on any list or not, U.S. attorneys currently serving enjoy the full confidence and support of the attorney general and Department of Justice," Roehrkasse said.
One memo sent to Sampson last November from Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, suggested firing Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, who supervised the nation's prosecutors for a year and now heads the Office on Violence Against Women, sources said.
The same e-mail also listed prosecutor Christopher J. Christie in New Jersey, a major GOP donor who has undertaken several high-profile public-corruption probes -- including one into the real estate deals of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) -- and who announced indictments in a terrorism case last week.
Reached last night, Christie said Elston contacted him in mid-March. Elston told him that he had put Christie's name on a Nov. 1, 2006, list, along with four other U.S. attorneys, and that a redacted copy was being turned over to Congress.
"I was completely shocked. No one had ever told me that my performance had been anything but good," Christie said. "I specifically asked him why he put my name on the list. He said he couldn't give me an explanation."
He added that Elston apologized and that he refused to accept the apology. "I still to this day don't know how I got taken off the list," Christie said.
In early 2005, Sampson briefly mentioned the idea of removing 15 to 20 percent of U.S. attorneys, but previous evidence indicated that only about a dozen prosecutors had been considered for removal.
The Justice documents that contain the names of firing candidates have been released in censored form as part of the congressional probe into the firings. The public versions of those records include only the names of U.S. attorneys that Justice has acknowledged firing last year.
But sources who have examined or been briefed on the full records identified at least 26 names, including the nine prosecutors fired last year and another, Karl K. "Kasey" Warner of Charleston, W.Va., who was dismissed in August 2005. The remaining 16 include three who resigned from their posts after appearing on one or more lists.
Several U.S. attorneys included on the lists declined to comment yesterday, and others did not respond to telephone messages.
Silsby, the chief federal prosecutor in Maine since 2001, holds an unusual status because she was appointed by a federal judge after President Bush did not nominate anyone for the position.
A spokesman for Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said the senator recommended Silsby, an assistant U.S. attorney in that office for 24 years, to the White House based on the recommendation of a search committee. The spokesman, David Snepp, said Snowe has never had any conversations with White House or Justice officials about Silsby's performance.
Silsby said she received no complaints from Justice about her office's handling of gun cases or election fraud -- areas of administration concern about some prosecutors who were removed -- or other areas.
"If I ended up on somebody's list who thinks that I should have been replaced, that is an irrelevancy to me," she said, "because I have a job to do. That is to perform the duties and functions of the Department of Justice, to represent the Department of Justice in the most competent, ethical manner possible."
The documents do not specify why removals were contemplated or why some prosecutors kept their jobs, the sources said.
Three U.S. attorneys resigned while they were under consideration for dismissal: William J. Leone of Colorado, Thomas B. Heffelfinger of Minnesota and David York of Mobile, Ala. Heffelfinger has said previously that he resigned voluntarily and had no idea he was targeted.
York stepped down in September 2005, seven months after his name appeared on Sampson's first list. According to local news accounts, York resigned while he was the subject of an internal Justice investigation.
Reached at his law office yesterday, York said of his inclusion on the list: "I think it's a non-story." He declined to comment further.
Leone was placed on a firing list in January 2006, 13 months after he took over as interim U.S. attorney. He had been the top assistant in the office and was lead prosecutor on an insider-trading case against a former Qwest Communications executive.
Leone did not return a phone call to his law office yesterday.
Another prosecutor, Anna Mills Wagoner of Greensboro, N.C., is included on three lists. Documents show that Monica M. Goodling, a Gonzales aide set to testify next week in Congress, removed her from consideration because of her work prosecuting gun crimes.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.