Official Close to Attorney Firings Quits

By LARA JAKES JORDAN
The Associated Press
Friday, June 15, 2007; 10:50 PM

WASHINGTON -- A senior Justice Department official who helped carry out the dismissals of federal prosecutors said Friday he is resigning. Mike Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, is the fifth Justice official to leave after being linked to the dismissals of the prosecutors.

Elston was accused of threatening at least four of the eight fired U.S. attorneys to keep quiet about their ousters. In a statement Friday, the Justice Department said Elston was leaving voluntarily to take a job with an unnamed Washington-area law firm.

The firings have led to congressional investigations, an internal Justice Department inquiry and calls on Capitol Hill for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Reached Friday afternoon, Elston confirmed his plans to leave but declined further comment. His departure is effective at the end of next week and was widely anticipated since McNulty announced his own resignation last month.

In a statement, McNulty said Elston served the Justice Department "with distinction for nearly eight years."

"With his breadth of trial and appellate service, I have no doubt he will continue to enjoy an outstanding legal career," McNulty said.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers said the resignation raises a red flag for investigators.

"When yet another significant player resigns in the U.S. attorney scandal, it only deepens the mystery of who targeted U.S. attorneys for firing, why they did it, and what exactly is going on in the highest reaches of the Justice Department and who is filling the vacuum of leadership that has developed there," said Conyers, D-Mich.

As McNulty's top aide, Elston's duties included overseeing the government's 93 U.S. attorneys nationwide. Elston helped plan and carry out the firings of seven of the eight prosecutors who were dismissed in 2006 _ firings which were orchestrated by two of Gonzales' top aides beginning shortly after the 2004 elections. Elston also called several of the U.S. attorneys afterward trying to quell the growing outcry.

At least four of the prosecutors Elston contacted said they felt threatened by his calls, which they interpreted as demands to stay quiet about why they were fired. Congress is investigating the firings, which Democrats believe were politically motivated.

Elston and his attorney, Bob Driscoll, said the phone calls were never meant to be threatening.

Statements released from the House Judiciary Committee painted a different picture.

"I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general's," wrote Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada.

John McKay, former top prosecutor in Seattle, said he perceived a threat from Elston during his call. And Carol Lam, who was U.S. attorney in San Diego, said that "during one phone call, Michael Elston erroneously accused me of 'leaking' my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys."

A fourth former U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., had made a similar accusation in an e-mail released in March. At the time, Elston said he was "shocked and baffled" that his Feb. 20 conversation with Cummins could be interpreted as threatening.

"I do not understand how anything that I said to him in our last conversation in mid-February could be construed as a threat of any kind, and I certainly had no intention leaving him with that impression," Elston in a two-page letter to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who had questioned the call.

The Senate Judiciary Committee authorized a subpoena for Elston's testimony about his role in the firings but never issued it because he voluntarily met with congressional investigators to answer more than seven hours of questions behind closed doors.

Other aides who have resigned in the wake of the firings include former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson and White House liaison Monica M. Goodling. A fifth official, Mike Battle, who ran the Justice office that oversees the U.S. attorneys, left in March.

Elston has worked for the Justice Department since 1999, winning its highest award for attorneys in 2006 for his legal performance.

He started as a trial prosecutor in Illinois, and moved to the U.S. attorney's office in northern Virginia in 2002. There, Elston worked for McNulty, then the U.S. attorney whom he followed to Justice Department headquarters in late 2005.

© 2007 The Associated Press