By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Top Justice Department officials named a longtime public corruption prosecutor yesterday to explore the basis for firing a U.S. attorney in New Mexico two years ago, escalating the uproar over political infusion in the process and raising the specter of a criminal investigation of lawmakers, White House aides and former department officials.
Nora R. Dannehy, who will continue the inquiry, is a 17-year veteran of the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut whose work led to the conviction of the state's former governor John G. Rowland (R) four years ago. She will make a preliminary report to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey within two months, but lawyers involved in the case said her work will probably extend into the next administration.
Mukasey moved to continue the inquiry after a report issued yesterday by department investigators found political motives for the firing of three U.S. attorneys and charged that senior officials "abdicated" their duty to safeguard the independence of the process.
Although prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president, the report said that former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales "bears primary responsibility" for the debacle because he allowed youthful subordinates to carry out the purge amid his "remarkable disengagement." Gonzales never vetted complaints made by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who called on Justice and White House officials no fewer than four times asking them to fire local U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias for not prosecuting Democrats.
The report said Gonzales was never notified about the dismissal of another top prosecutor, a "stunning" example of managerial default.
Investigators concluded that they did not have enough evidence to make criminal referrals for officials who may have engaged in fraud, obstruction of justice or perjury in connection with firings. They cited stonewalling from the White House counsel's office and from Domenici, who declined to sit for interviews and turn over documents.
The report also called on a prosecutor to examine whether former officials offered misleading testimony. Sources said those officials could include Gonzales's onetime chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and possibly Gonzales himself.
Investigators concluded that Sampson was "not credible" and "unpersuasive" in his accounts of the dismissal process and of how Iglesias wound up on the firing line. They were less blunt about Gonzales, calling his failure to remember meetings and documents "difficult to accept" but punting on the central question of whether he "deliberately provided false information." Perjury cases are challenging for prosecutors and generally require evidence that shows specific intent to mislead.
But the conflicting explanations for the dismissals, and the refusal of key White House and Senate officials to provide documents and testimony, requires further investigation to determine whether "any criminal offense was committed with regard to the removal of Iglesias or any other U.S. attorney, or the testimony of any witness related to the U.S. Attorney removals," the report said.
Justice Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility Director H. Marshall Jarrett, who led the effort, set out to examine the mass firings of nine U.S. attorneys. Ultimately, department watchdogs found evidence of partisanship and heightened White House involvement in three of the cases, starting with Iglesias.
In most firings, faulty job performance was not an issue, despite congressional testimony to that effect last year from then-Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. McNulty should have been more forceful once the firings issue came to his attention in fall 2006 and should have told Congress that he received a call from Domenici, investigators said. Instead, he "distanced" himself from Iglesias's ouster, calling it a "personnel matter" outside his "bailiwick," the report said.
K. Lee Blalack II, an attorney for Domenici, said yesterday that there is "no credible basis" to assert that the senator called Iglesias to interfere with or obstruct a prosecution. Domenici, who is retiring amid disclosures that he has a degenerative neurological condition, was admonished by the Senate ethics committee in April for creating an "appearance of impropriety."
The report found that Arkansas U.S. Attorney H.E. "Bud" Cummins was asked to resign to make room for Timothy Griffin, a former deputy in the White House political affairs office and a onetime aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove, the report said. Department officials misled Congress about the timing and reasons for the move, investigators said.
In Missouri, U.S. Attorney Todd Graves apparently got sacked because he would not intercede in a dispute between his brother, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and staff members to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), according to the report. In fall 2004, friction had emerged between Sam Graves's chief of staff and an aide to Bond, the report said, but when the U.S. attorney declined to get involved, the Bond aide replied that the senator "could no longer protect" his job.
Investigators wrote that "each senior official we interviewed claimed that others must have made the decision."
They also concluded that Sampson had engaged in misconduct for playing down his role in the firings -- at one point, he told them he was merely an "aggregator" of the views of others -- and for making a series of misleading statements to Justice Department supervisors, to lawyers in the White House counsel's office and to Congress. Investigators flagged a letter dated Feb. 23, 2007, forwarded to the Senate, which made the claim, later amended, that Rove did not play a role in selecting one of the replacement prosecutors.
Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers did not consent to interviews, and White House officials rejected attempts by investigators to review internal memos that administration aides had prepared last year. Emmet T. Flood, deputy counsel to President Bush, said in a letter to investigators that the material they sought is "sensitive" and involves "confidentiality interests of a very high order." The lawyer stopped short of citing executive privilege for declining to turn over the documents, perhaps because the Justice Department watchdogs are part of the executive branch.
Bradford A. Berenson, an attorney for Sampson, said his client "cooperated fully and voluntarily with any and all investigators, without preconditions and provided his best, most honest and complete recollection of these events."
Meanwhile, George J. Terwilliger III, an attorney for Gonzales, said the former attorney general had "engaged in no wrongful or improper conduct." He blasted the department's leaders for extending the investigation and said: "There's not a scintilla of evidence in that report that suggests criminal wrongdoing" by Gonzales.
Dannehy's primary focus will be the ouster of Iglesias, a former Navy lawyer and onetime GOP star in New Mexico. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) made calls to complain about him, the report said.
Iglesias said yesterday that he is pleased with the decision to continue the investigation, adding, "I hope the Department of Justice never goes down this road again."