In U.S. Attorney's Offices, Help Wanted

"If we had a credible attorney general at the helm, we wouldn't be scrambling to fill vacancies," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, right, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. "Instead, top legal talent would be flocking to the department." (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Justice Department is scrambling to find willing replacements for nearly two dozen temporary U.S. attorneys, whose time in office is now limited under a law signed last week by President Bush.

The developments add to growing personnel problems at the Justice Department in the wake of last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys, which led to a political confrontation with Congress, lowered morale and contributed to an exodus of officials from the upper ranks of the department.

A quarter of all federal prosecutors are now on the job on an interim or acting basis -- reflecting a vacancy rate that is much higher than normal, according to department statistics. Five senior Justice Department officials have also resigned since March, including one who announced his departure Friday.

"There are certainly a lot of vacancies, even for the end of an administration," said Dennis Boyd, executive director of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. "For some turnover to be occurring is not that big of a surprise, but the department has handled . . . [the prosecutor firings] so poorly that you're left with an unusual situation."

The situation became more complicated this week, when Bush signed a bill overturning legislation that allowed Gonzales to appoint interim prosecutors for an indefinite period. Without that authority, the Justice Department has 120 days to fill vacancies with nominees subject to Senate confirmation, or appointees will named by local federal courts.

The provision allowing indefinite interim appointments was slipped largely unnoticed into a USA Patriot Act reauthorization bill in March 2006. Gonzales's aides subsequently discussed using it to bypass the Democratic congressional delegation from Arkansas to appoint a former White House aide as interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, according to e-mails turned over to congressional investigators.

The vacancy problems underscore the broad sense of tumult at the Justice Department. Its third-ranking official, acting Associate Attorney General William W. Mercer, is finally scheduled to appear for a Senate confirmation hearing later this month, after serving for two years as both a temporary senior department official and as the U.S. attorney in Montana.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been among those leading the call for Gonzales to resign because of his handling of the prosecutor firings, said the vacancy problem is "further proof that dysfunctional leadership and low morale are hobbling the mission of the Justice Department."

"If we had a credible attorney general at the helm, we wouldn't be scrambling to fill vacancies," Schumer said. "Instead, top legal talent would be flocking to the department."

So far, the administration has submitted only four U.S. attorney nominations to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Justice Department officials said many of the jobs may not be filled until early next year because it takes an average of 331 days to fill an empty U.S. attorney's position. This is due in part to the complicated process for identifying U.S. attorney candidates, which varies from state to state and usually involves input from home-state senators.

"We are working diligently to identify nominees for U.S. attorney vacancies as quickly as possible," said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. He noted that the interim prosecutors "are perfectly capable of effectively running the office while we work to identify nominees."

Those serving as temporary prosecutors include Charles T. Miller in Charleston, W. Va., who has been in the job since February 2006, and John Green in Casper, Wyo., who took over last week after the resignation of U.S. Attorney Matthew Mead. Most of those serving in the posts temporarily are either career prosecutors from the local office or mid-level officials dispatched from Justice Department headquarters in Washington.

The longest-serving interim U.S. attorney, by far, is Paula D. Silsby of Maine, who was appointed chief prosecutor by the local federal court in September 2001 and has never been nominated for Senate confirmation. Silsby's name appeared on several of the firings lists compiled by D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, but she was not dismissed.

The Justice Department has signaled that it might seek to extend the terms of those U.S. attorneys appointed under a legal provision known as the Vacancies Act by reappointing them under another provision that would give them an additional four months on the job. Gonzales notified the Senate last week that he wants to use this maneuver to extend the appointment of George S. Cardona of Los Angeles.

The strategy may not sit well with Senate Democrats, however. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in remarks last week that he views the move as improper.

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