How Obama Will Handle U.S. Attorney Posts Remains Unclear

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

One of the better spoils of winning the presidency is the power to appoint nearly 100 top prosecutors across the country. But filling the plum jobs has become a test of competing priorities for President Obama. While he pledged bipartisanship during his campaign, replacing the cadre of mostly conservative U.S. attorneys would signal a new direction.

When President Bill Clinton took office, he fired all U.S. attorneys at once, provoking intense criticism in the conservative legal community and among career lawyers at the Justice Department.

President George W. Bush took a different approach, slowly releasing several of the prosecutors but keeping in place Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, while she pursued terrorism cases and a politically sensitive investigation of Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Obama has not made clear how he will build his own corps of prosecutors, a group that shapes an administration's approach to law enforcement and is critical to its smooth operation. U.S. attorneys' offices handled more than 100,000 criminal cases and recovered $1.3 billion in forfeited cash and property in the past fiscal year, according to a prosecutors' trade group.

The White House is under pressure from several fronts, both to appoint new prosecutors favored by members of Congress and, in other cases, to keep some U.S. attorneys from the Bush administration.

Several Bush holdovers, who were told before the inauguration that they could stay "for the time being," are making it known that they want to remain, citing the high-profile investigations they are pursuing. About 40 of the Bush appointees left of their own accord before the election, but dozens have stayed on.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who oversaw a recent FBI raid of fundraisers close to Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), told local reporters after the November election that she did not plan to voluntarily resign.

Buchanan had held top political jobs in the Bush Justice Department, where she directed the office of violence against women and led the unit that oversees the nation's U.S. attorneys. She is a member of the conservative Federalist Society legal group and cultivated close connections to former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an advocate for antiabortion and Christian groups.

"It doesn't serve justice for all the U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations at one time," Buchanan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. "I am open to continuing further service to the United States."

In North Dakota, residents are pursuing a petition drive to keep U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley, a public relations campaign that was chronicled on the front page of the state's main newspaper. Wrigley's supporters say he needs to be in place to pursue a death sentence against the man convicted nearly three years ago of murdering University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003. And in New Orleans, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has won the endorsement of the state's Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, who praised him for picking up a heavy caseload after Hurricane Katrina.

Justice Department and White House officials declined to comment on U.S. attorney picks this week.

The appointments this year are, perhaps more than before, weighted with symbolism. The department's inspector general concluded in a report that the Bush administration's hiring of prosecutors and immigration judges was tainted by political considerations, and prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy is conducting a criminal investigation into whether several prosecutors were wrongly fired in 2006 because of politics.

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