Holder Opts for Experience Over Political Connections in Personnel Changes at Justice Department

Ted Stevens leaves federal court in Washington with his daughters, from left, Beth Stevens, Lilly Stevens and Susan Covich. The former senator's conviction for ethics violations was vacated this week.
Ted Stevens leaves federal court in Washington with his daughters, from left, Beth Stevens, Lilly Stevens and Susan Covich. The former senator's conviction for ethics violations was vacated this week. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. began a series of personnel moves yesterday in one of the most sensitive and secretive sections of the Justice Department, part of his effort to restore public confidence in the nation's highest law enforcement operation.

The department has attracted ferocious criticism from judges and defense lawyers who have sounded alarms about unprofessional conduct and raised allegations about political interference in prosecutions during the Bush administration.

Holder promised lawmakers at his confirmation hearing this year that he would remove the taint of politics from the department's hiring practices and perform a "damage assessment" of its operations.

Yesterday he took a step in that direction, naming a longtime prosecutor to lead the Justice Department's internal ethics unit, as well as making two other personnel switches. For Holder, who got his start as a young lawyer in the department more than three decades ago, the announcements put his stamp on a building still reeling from the dismissal this week of criminal charges against former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The department is also facing fresh calls to reopen the cases of other prominent political figures.

In making the appointments, Holder said his selection of career prosecutors with decades of experience, rather than political connections, was meant to underscore the importance of ethics and professionalism in the department.

He appointed Mary Patrice Brown, a well-respected career prosecutor in the District, the new leader of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which polices misconduct by department lawyers. Brown, who runs the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in the District, will become the third chief of the ethics unit since it was established in 1975 after the Watergate scandal.

The move came a day after U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan expressed a lack of confidence in the office, which has been investigating lapses with witnesses and evidence that ultimately demolished the government's case against Stevens. Citing the seriousness of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct, the judge took the extraordinary step of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate six government lawyers involved in the case against the former senator, convicted last fall of ethics violations for accepting gifts from an oil services company executive.

The ethics job is among the most delicate in the Justice Department. Among other issues, the OPR has been examining whether lawyers from George W. Bush's presidency who drafted memos in support of waterboarding and other harsh detainee interrogation tactics followed professional legal standards. Two key Senate Democrats have been advocating for the release of the report on the Bush lawyers.

Lawmakers and former Justice Department officials have criticized the unit for its slow pace in investigating department personnel, an issue Sullivan highlighted this week.

Former colleagues praised Brown's background yesterday.

"She's got great judgment, unimpeachable integrity and a tremendous reputation around town," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, who worked with Brown when he served as U.S. attorney in the District during the Bush administration. "She understands the stresses and strains in litigation, but also understands the importance of following the rules."

James W. Cooper, a former career prosecutor in the District, said that Brown "is a person of the utmost integrity, and I think she will be very effective in that position."

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