By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008 3:34 PM
Investigators probing the firing of nine U.S. attorneys concluded that top Justice Department officials "abdicated their responsibility" by failing to supervise subordinates who carried out the botched plan, according to a long-awaited report released today.
At their urging, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey selected a veteran federal prosecutor to continue the inquiry, focusing on whether department officials, including former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, misled Congress after the firings came to light last year.
The investigation uncovered "significant evidence" that partisan political factors played a role in some of the 2006 dismissals. Particularly "troubling," according to the report, was the sacking of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias after several Republican elected officials complained about voter fraud and public corruption cases he pursued. That episode raises the possibility that obstruction of justice and wire fraud laws were violated.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility Director H. Marshall Jarrett, who had been investigating the basis for the dismissals for 18 months, also cited "inconsistent, misleading or inaccurate" statements by the department's former leaders.
In the 390-page report, issued this morning, they said Gonzales "bears primary responsibility" for the debacle and asserted that he was "remarkably disengaged" from the process, which stretched on for months. Investigators said that after the mass firings came to light, Gonzales made "misleading" public statements about his involvement, failing to recall his attendance at a critical meeting and documents that landed on his desk.
But investigators stopped short of concluding that a crime had been committed. Instead, they called for further inquiry to determine the facts underlying the removal of Iglesias and whether department officials had issued false or misleading statements to Congress and the public.
Reached by phone, Iglesias said he was cheered by the findings and said he looked forward to the results of the investigation as it proceeds.
In their strongest conclusions, the Justice Department investigators said that D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Gonzales, had committed "misconduct" by making a series of questionable public statements and failing to share information with the White House, lawmakers and his own superiors about the extent of the White House involvement in the firings.
Bradford Berenson, a lawyer for Sampson, said it was "mystifying and disappointing that the inspector general chose to impugn Mr. Sampson's candor and integrity when, virtually alone among significant participants in this matter, Mr. Sampson at all times cooperated fully and voluntarily with any and all investigators, without preconditions, and provided his best, most honest and complete recollection of these events. He has behaved with honor and dignity throughout this difficult episode and has never attempted to shirk his responsibility for problems in the U.S. attorney firings."
The internal watchdogs asked that the investigation continue under the authority of a prosecutor with the power to compel testimony and production of documents. They said their probe was thwarted in part because they could not interview key witnesses, including former White House officials Karl Rove, Harriet E. Miers and William Kelley. Investigators also pointed out that the White House refused to turn over internal documents related to the dismissal of the prosecutors by citing the "sensitivity" of the issues, saying the move had "hindered" their inquiry.
Mukasey selected Connecticut Acting U.S. Attorney Nora R. Dannehy, a federal prosecutor for 17 years, to answer the lingering questions. Dannehy will report to the department's second in command. Her investigation likely will extend for months, ensuring that the politically charged issue will extend into the next administration.
The investigators said the prosecutor should consider whether Sampson, the department official who played the greatest role in developing the dismissal list, made false statements to Congress or investigators for the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility. They also urged the prosecutor to examine the statements of other former department leaders and to scrutinize whether federal criminal statutes were violated.
In a joint statement, the investigators said "it is important to note that our report did not conclude that the evidence we have uncovered thus far establishes that a violation of any criminal statute has occurred. However, we believe that the evidence collected in this investigation is not complete and that serious allegations have not been fully investigated or resolved."
In the report, they said they could not reach a conclusion about whether Gonzales deliberately issued misleading statements about his role in the firings at a March 2007 news conference. That issue could come under review by Dannehy.
Current and former lawyers in the department, however, said criminal charges against Gonzales, who stepped aside in August 2007, were unlikely without the emergence of new e-mails or witness accounts that directly contradict his statements about the firings.
Sources familiar with the case said they could not foreclose other avenues for the investigation, especially if Dannehy receives long sought documents from the White House.
Mukasey called the firing process "haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional" in a statement released this morning.
"The leaders of the department owed it to the American people they served to conduct the public's business in a deliberate and professional manner," Mukasey said. "The department failed on both scores."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that "perhaps a prosecutor can break down walls that others cannot. The threads of secrecy of this administration - from the White House to the executive agencies - will continue to unravel for years to come."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, immediately announced he would hold a hearing Friday to address the report's findings.
"This scheme, which the report makes clear was hatched in the White House, was a fundamental betrayal of the American people and the men and women of the Department of Justice and it will be a long time before we can fully repair the damage," Conyers said.
In their 18-month review, investigators sifted through thousands of documents and interviewed scores of people to test the reasons department leaders offered for the prosecutors' dismissals. They also set out to determine whether the prosecutors were sacked in an improper attempt to influence particular cases.
The basis for the dismissals is the subject of a tug of war between Congress and the executive branch. This year, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sued to seek documents and testimony from former White House counsel Miers and from President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten. A federal appeals court in Washington is deliberating the case. Meanwhile, the House panel recently voted to hold Rove in contempt for refusing to answer questions about the firings.
The political heat intensified last year amid more than half a dozen congressional hearings into the issue. Ultimately, 19 Justice Department officials in Washington resigned.
Paul J. McNulty, the former deputy attorney general, failed to object to the plan when it came to his attention in the fall of 2006 and failed to oversee subordinates who launched the effort, investigators concluded.
Monica M. Goodling, who served as the department's White House liaison, told Congress last year that she felt "uncomfortable" during a March 2007 conversation with Gonzales that focused on her recollections of the circumstances surrounding the dismissals. Her account of the meeting prompted lawmakers to accuse Gonzales of improperly trying to influence her testimony.
Gonzales denied the allegations, saying he was only trying to comfort a distraught employee. Goodling is one of several former aides who declined to be interviewed by investigators, who lacked the power to issue subpoenas.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers challenged Gonzales's truthfulness in a series of hostile hearings in the summer of 2007. The sessions highlighted his inability to remember key meetings, e-mails and memos laying out plans for the dismissals. Gonzales, who has not landed full-time legal work since his resignation, told Congress that he delegated many decisions to his subordinates and should have exercised more oversight.
In a statement, George J. Terwilliger III, a lawyer for Gonzales, said his client "engaged in no wrongful or improper conduct" and acknowledged "that the process for evaluating U.S. attorney performance in this instance was flawed."
Terwilliger added: "It seems rather odd, then, that rather than bring the investigation to a close, the Department would escalate the matter to the attention of a prosecutor when its own policies require preliminary evidence" before opening an investigation.
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason. But contradictory explanations for the dismissals, and the steady release of internal e-mails suggesting the plan had evolved over two years in consultation with White House officials, damaged the department's reputation and credibility.
Among the most closely watched of the cases is the one involving former New Mexico U.S. attorney Iglesias, who says he received troubling phone calls from GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson about the status of a criminal corruption probe against a prominent local Democrat shortly before the 2006 elections. In April, the Senate Ethics Committee admonished Domenici, who is retiring, saying he should have known the call would create "an appearance of impropriety."
Investigators failed in their attempts to interview Domenici and his chief of staff, Steve Bell.
Any documents and interviews gathered by Dannehy presumably would be covered under federal grand jury and investigative protections, keeping them under wraps for months, until after Bush leaves office.