Several Top Positions at Justice Department Unfilled

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

As Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey nears the end of his second month, many of the Justice Department's top positions remain vacant or filled with temporary appointees with no replacements in sight, according to legislative aides and Bush administration officials.

Several positions are open because lawmakers have blocked the administration's nominees, including Steven G. Bradbury, whose appointment as head of the Office of Legal Counsel is opposed by Democrats because of his role in writing secret memos allowing coercive interrogation techniques.

But most of the positions, particularly those in U.S. attorney's offices, are unfilled because the Bush administration has yet to propose permanent candidates, according to legislative aides and Justice records.

Only four of the nine U.S. attorneys fired as part of a coordinated purge in 2006 have been replaced with Senate-approved prosecutors. The administration has not offered nominees for the remaining five posts.

Overall, 19 of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys are currently acting or interim prosecutors, but only three nominations for those slots have been received by the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

"The White House has made an abysmal effort to send nominees to the Senate to replace the fired U.S. attorneys and to fill vacancies in those districts and many others," Leahy said last week.

Justice officials say 11 department nominations are pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee or on the Senate floor, including nominations of candidates for deputy attorney general, associate attorney general and civil rights chief.

"With the remaining positions, we're working as quickly as possible to identify individuals for nomination and Senate confirmation," Justice spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement. "We will send nominations to the Senate as quickly as possible, and we urge the Senate to move forward promptly in the new year to confirm each U.S. attorney nomination currently pending."

The vacancies pose a lingering challenge for Mukasey, who took over a department nearly emptied of senior leadership after a political uproar over the prosecutor firings and other scandals. Mukasey's predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales, left in September after his deputy, his third-in-command and more than a dozen other senior managers resigned.

The Senate Judiciary panel last week held a confirmation hearing for U.S. District Judge Mark Filip of Chicago, who has been nominated as deputy attorney general and appears likely to be approved early next year. Leahy also said the Senate has approved 22 executive nominations that passed through his committee this year, including more than half a dozen Justice officials.

But several key candidates are bogged down amid opposition from the right or the left.

Bradbury, for example, has elicited sharp opposition from Democratic leaders in the Senate, who decided last week not to carry over his nomination into the next Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also decided that the Senate will meet on a "pro forma" basis over the Christmas and New Year's holidays to prevent President Bush from using his power to appoint Bradbury or others during the congressional recess.

The net result is that Bush will have to renominate Bradbury if he wants to continue pushing for his confirmation.

From the other side of the aisle, three Republican senators have placed holds on the nomination of Michael Sullivan, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is part of the Justice Department. Sullivan also serves double duty as the U.S. attorney in Boston.

Sens. Larry E. Craig and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, along with Sen. David Vitter (La.), cite complaints from some gun-rights organizations that the ATF has been too aggressive in penalizing gun owners and dealers for minor infractions and paperwork errors. Senate rules allow one or more lawmakers to block a floor vote by placing a hold on the nomination.

"I need to see more willingness from the nominee to address these problems before I can allow his nomination to move forward," Vitter said last week, referring to "over-aggressive ATF regulation."

Carr, the Justice spokesman, said Sullivan is "the right person for the job" and "critical to the department's efforts to combat violent crime." He also said the administration will continue to push for Bradbury, who was first nominated in June 2005 and has headed the Office of Legal Counsel in an acting capacity since then.

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