Justice Dept. Official To Quit

By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 16, 2007

A fifth senior Justice Department official announced his resignation yesterday in the wake of the controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, will leave the department at the end of next week to join an unidentified law firm, officials said.

Elston was closely involved in deliberations over the fate of a group of U.S. attorneys last December. He assembled one of the lists of prosecutors to be considered for removal. Four of the dismissed prosecutors said they later received inappropriate telephone calls from Elston, who allegedly warned some of them that they would suffer retaliation if they spoke publicly about their firings.

Elston and his attorney have denied the allegations.

His departure comes on the heels of a similar decision by McNulty, who announced last month that he would be leaving the Justice Department this summer. Three other senior aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales have also resigned in recent months after disclosures of their involvement in the prosecutor firings.

The Justice Department faces continuing congressional inquiries and an internal investigation into whether Gonzales or his aides violated laws or department guidelines in carrying out the firings or in deciding who to hire for nonpartisan career positions.

In addition, the Justice Department officials leading the internal investigation disclosed this week that they are examining whether Gonzales sought to improperly influence the testimony of one of his aides during a private meeting.

Former U.S. attorney John McKay of Seattle told Congress that on Jan. 17 -- before McKay stepped down -- he received a call from Elston that he "greatly resented." He said Elston attempted to "buy my silence by promising that the attorney general would not demean me in his Senate testimony."

"My handwritten and dated notes of this call," McKay told Congress, "reflect that I believed Mr. Elston's tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal."

Paul K. Charlton, who was the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said that he, too, received a call that day in which Elston offered "a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general's." Another former prosecutor, Carol C. Lam of San Diego, said Elston accused her of "leaking" word of her dismissal to the press "and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys."

Former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock also recounted a Feb. 20 conversation with Elston that Cummins said contained a "threatening undercurrent" warning that Justice Department officials would retaliate if he or his colleagues spoke to journalists or volunteered to testify in Congress.

Elston said in a March interview that he was "horrified" by Cummins's description of their conversation. "By no means did I have any message in mind," Elston said. "I think he misinterpreted what I was saying, and I'm very sorry that occurred."

Gonzales, who enjoys continued support from President Bush, has refused congressional demands that he resign, and GOP senators successfully derailed an attempt earlier this week to stage a no-confidence vote for the attorney general. But Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Elston's departure underscores why Gonzales should resign.

"Alberto Gonzales appears to be the last man standing, but he should have been the first to go," Schumer said. "Almost every official involved in the U.S. attorney firings is gone, but that doesn't change the simple fact that the buck stops with the attorney general."

McNulty -- who brought Elston to Justice Department headquarters after working with him in the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria -- praised Elston in a statement issued yesterday. He said Elston has "served the Department of Justice with distinction for nearly 8 years" and that "he will continue to enjoy an outstanding legal career."

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