Justice Dept.'s No. 3 Resigns

Mercer Is Sixth Official to Leave in Wake of Prosecutor Firings

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 2007; 5:34 p.m. ET

The Justice Department's third-in-command announced his resignation today, becoming the sixth high-level official to quit in the wake of ongoing controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

William W. Mercer, who has been acting associate attorney general since September, formally withdrew his nomination for the permanent job just days before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing scheduled for Tuesday. Officials said he will return to Montana, where he also has a permanent job as the state's only U.S. attorney.

Mercer wrote in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that there was "no end in sight" to his nomination, and that he could no longer hold on to both his Washington and Montana jobs.

"After much consideration, I have concluded that it is highly unlikely that both the Judiciary Committee and the Senate will take prompt action on my nomination in the near term, if ever," Mercer wrote. "The prospects of my confirmation seem as distant today as they have been over much of the last ten months since my nomination."

Mercer is the latest of a half dozen officials to leave the senior ranks at Justice in the wake of the prosecutor firings, which have prompted congressional and internal investigations and have led Democrats and some Republicans to call on Gonzales to resign.

Mercer was involved in the aftermath of the prosecutor firings, according to Justice documents, and had come under criticism from some lawmakers for spending most of his time in temporary Washington posts over the last two years rather than attending to his duties in Montana.

Mercer had language inserted into the reauthorized USA Patriot Act in late 2005 that made it easier for him and other U.S. attorneys to serve as acting officials in Washington while holding their prosecutor jobs.

According to testimony, Mercer spent an average of just three days a month as U.S. attorney in Billings. His frequent absence had prompted Montana's chief federal judge to ask Gonzales to replace him; the attorney general refused.

In his letter to Gonzales today, Mercer acknowledged some of the criticism, writing that he has "heard the call from my home state senators encouraging me to choose one Department of Justice role.

"This change will address their concerns with certainty as opposed to the uncertainty of a more protracted nomination process," Mercer said.

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty has also announced his resignation, effective later this summer. Other senior officials who have left Justice this year include Michael J. Elston, McNulty's chief of staff; Michael Battle, former head of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys; D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff; and Monica M. Goodling, Gonzales's former senior counsel and White House liaison.

All six officials played central roles in the prosecutor firings or their aftermath. Goodling provided damaging testimony to the House indicating that many nonpolitical employees at Justice may have been subjected to unlawful political litmus tests.

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