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How Obama Will Handle U.S. Attorney Posts Remains Unclear
Filling jobs in a new administration has always involved politics, but the U.S. attorney posts have been more of a hybrid, where professional background and experience were also considered essential. Still, lawmakers' views often weigh heavily in decisions about who should get the jobs, which require Senate confirmation. The late senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) once famously chose his 28-year-old son for the post.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said this week that he had urged the administration to name former U.S. attorney Daniel G. Bogden to a post he held until he was among those fired by the Bush administration. Bogden, a registered independent who spent 20 years as a line prosecutor, should not have been dismissed, Reid said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has recommended Preet Bharara, his top legal adviser, to be the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, an office that traditionally handles some of the nation's most important business fraud and terrorism cases. Bharara spent years in the office as a prosecutor before moving to Washington. He has close working relationships with prosecutors who handle securities fraud and national security, one of the reasons Schumer recommended him.
Obama administration officials have confirmed they will bless a proposal by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a political independent, remain U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Fitzgerald is spearheading the criminal investigation of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D), a public corruption case that spurred government investigators to interview Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and adviser Valerie Jarrett in December.
The process in the District is proceeding more slowly, as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) prepares to have a committee evaluate recommendations for the city's top prosecutor job. Former federal prosecutor DeMaurice Smith, a former aide to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., and D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Thomas J. Motley are leading candidates, executive branch and congressional sources said.
Advisers to Obama say they have learned from past mistakes, including Clinton's decision to require all U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations.
Critics said that move threw law enforcement efforts into disarray. And Richard Cullen, who was a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia under President George H.W. Bush, said that crossed signals during the Clinton transition left some prosecutors on the street unexpectedly.
"We just got a call one day: Resign right away," said Cullen, now chairman of the law firm McGuire Woods. "That was at odds with what the Clinton transition people told the Bush transition people. Some people didn't have jobs to go back to, and had families to feed."
Steve Cook of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys recently sent a letter to the Obama team urging it to consider continuity rather than firing the remaining Bush appointees as a matter of "political expediency."
"The preferable approach we believe is to permit incumbent U.S. Attorneys to remain in place until the new U.S. Attorney has been nominated and confirmed," wrote Cook, a 22-year federal prosecutor in Tennessee.
Lawyers who have been involved in previous U.S. attorney selections say the pressure to appoint well-connected insiders always has been strong.
"I would caution the Obama administration against making wholesale removals of U.S. attorneys," said Mark Paoletta, who served in George H.W. Bush's Office of Presidential Personnel and in the White House counsel's office. Such a move, he said, "would unfortunately give the appearance of politicizing these law enforcement positions." But Melanie Sloan, a former prosecutor who serves as executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the issue is somewhat fraught for the new team at Justice.
"They can't want all these people," she said. "These are all very, very conservative Republicans. I think it's going to be tricky, because if they do nine of them at once, the Republicans are going to scream exactly like the Democrats did."
Join Carrie Johnson today to discuss this article. She will be chatting about the Obama administration's approach to hiring U.S. attorneys from 10:30 to 10:45 a.m. in the article's comments thread at washingtonpost.com.