Transcript

Behind the Firings of Six U.S. Attorneys

Dan Eggen
Washington Post Justice Department Reporter
Tuesday, February 20, 2007; 12:00 PM

Two months after the firings of six U.S. Attorneys began making waves on Capitol Hill, most have spoken publicly or on background, defending themselves against the Justice Department's claims of their inadequacy.

Washington Post Justice Department Reporter Dan Eggen was online Tuesday, Feb. 20 at noon ET to discuss his story looking into the firings of the government lawyers, including several leading major corruption trials or investigations.

The transcript follows.

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Dan Eggen: Good afternoon everyone. Let's get started.

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Washington: It seems the firings of these U.S. Attorneys is a strong-arm attempt by the administration to centralize power at the DOJ. As a law student who aspires to become an AUSA (assistant United States Attorney), it's pretty demoralizing to see these attorneys being punished simply for doing their job regardless of political ramifications.

Dan Eggen: I don't think there is any doubt that centralization is a key point here -- the Justice Department says as much in its justifications for the firings. The department says that these six attorneys in the West and Southwest essentially were not carrying out departmental policy, whether in the kinds of immigration cases that were emphasized (San Diego) or in the way that the death penalty was pursued (Arizona).

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Warrenton, Va.: Can you please give us more specifics about the identities of the politicians and the corruption investigations or indictments that U.S. Attorneys Lam, Charlton, and Bogden have been conducting?

Dan Eggen: These are all well-known cases that have been reported in the press. In Nevada just last week news came out about a preliminary inquiry into some activities linked to the governor there when he was in Congress. Two inquiries were underway last year involving GOP representatives in Arizona. And of course in San Diego, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery charges; Ms. Lam announced new indictments related to that case just two days before she left office.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Is there any political or policy significance to all of the attorneys being from the West?

Dan Eggen: There has been a lot of speculation about this because of the obvious geographical trend. The attorneys who were fired in phone calls placed on Dec. 7 were in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Albuquerque -- all fair-weather climes in primarily (but not exclusively) Blue State areas in the West and Southwest.

But there are two exceptions that cast doubt on whether geography is significant: First, the case of Bud Cummins, in Arkansas, which was handled differently than the others but really has fueled a lot of this controversy in Congress. (DOJ admits that Cummins was fired without cause in order to make room for a former aide to presidential advisor Karl Rove.)

Secondly, as we reported Sunday, there was at least one more U.S. attorney who was asked to resign on Dec. 7. However, this person apparently successfully negotiated to stay or may still be in the midst of negotiations. This person is not in the West, from what I've been told.

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Washington: Are the cases started by the fired U.S. Attorneys moving forward, or have those been dropped too?

Dan Eggen: The Justice Department insists that none of the firings have either stopped or slowed any investigations. And it should be noted that nearly all cases are run by career prosecutors in any given U.S. attorney's office, so one would not expect to see specific cases suddenly abandoned. (In San Diego, for example, the Cunningham-related probe is run by a team of experienced line prosecutors.)

That said, a new U.S. attorney can bring much different priorities to an office, so the impact could be seen in the months to come. Furthermore, that new appointee, whether temporary or permanent, certainly could order a halt to any case as he or she saw fit.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Thanks for doing this chat! A couple questions: Does this attorney purge have any precedent? Why was the media so slow to pick up on it -- TalkingPointsMemo first jumped on it over a month ago? Thanks again.

Dan Eggen: Thanks for reading. Both experts I've talked to and some who testified in the Senate earlier this month have characterized these firings as unprecedented. Both presidents Clinton and Bush cleaned house when first arriving in office, firing all but one or two U.S. attorneys in each case as I recall, but no one that I've talked to -- including current Justice officials -- can recall a situation where so many were fired en masse. Indeed, at least seven U.S. attorneys were called on the same day, Dec. 7.

As for the question of attention, like many stories of this kind, it percolated for a while before blossoming in the national press. But we've been paying very close attention for some time; I know I myself have written at least a half dozen stories on the topic since January, and I assume there will be more to come. A lot of it will depend on whether Congress follows through with more hearings and attention to the issue of course.

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Arlington, Va.: Skipping the Arkansas cash, which seems to reward someone, I am surprised that the firings were limited to a small area of the country. Is it possible that the folks in the Midwest, Northeast, and South were not guilty of the same sins that the six "firees" were?

Dan Eggen: As one of the fired attorneys told me: "You can't tell me that there's not even one U.S. attorney east of Denver that doesn't have any performance problems."

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Philadelphia: Carol Lam has secured indictments and a conviction regarding the Duke Cunningham scandal. Did she get fired because of these indictments and conviction? I thought that was the goal of an AUSA, to prosecute wrongdoers regardless of their political affiliation? Can the public really believe the DOJ when they say she was let go because of inadequacies?

Dan Eggen: Numerous Justice Department officials, up to and including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have repeatedly denied that the cases against Cunningham or other Republicans played any role in the firings issued on Dec. 7. The department points out, with some justification, that it has pursued numerous Republicans for wrongdoing around the country, including not only Cunningham but Bob Ney and others.

But the department is also in a pickle on this point because of the Arkansas case, where it has rather surprisingly admitted that it fired a perfectly good prosecutor in order to give the job to a longtime GOP operative. The publicity surrounding the firings has now nixed that plan, as Justice announced last week that the interim Little Rock U.S. attorney, Tim Griffin, would not be nominated for the permanent post.

But it certainly raises questions about Gonzales's comments to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when he said that he "would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons." In Little Rock, that's clearly what DOJ did by appointing Griffin, who was apparently put there at the behest of then-White House counsel Harriet Miers.

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Germantown, Md.: The Patriot Act was the enabling legislation that made it possible to fire these guys. Is there anything in the legislative history that explains the reasoning for giving the President this authority?

Dan Eggen: That is not exactly correct. DOJ could always fire a U.S. attorney for any reason. But now the attorney general can appoint an interim U.S. attorney, such as Griffin in Little Rock, for an indefinite period of time without ever nominating a permanent replacement to the Senate. That is one of the key reasons that so many Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, are upset about the firings of GOP-appointed U.S. attorneys. Gonzales and other Justice officials have pledged to name nominees for all vacant slots, but so far none have materialized for the seven positions at issue here.

As for the reasoning, the department argues that the old system was both impractical and possibly unconstitutional, because it allowed federal judges to name an interim U.S. attorney if a permanent candidate was not named in 120 days. DOJ says that raises separation of powers issues -- likening it to a federal court hiring Senate staffers -- and also points to a controversy that erupted in South Dakota recently over a vacancy there. Critics argue that giving Gonzales carte blanche to name interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely is too unlimited and seems designed to cut the Senate out of the confirmation process.

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Harrisburg, Pa: In today's Philadelphia Inquirer they quoted a study that 85 percent of all political corruption cases prosecuted by the U.S. Attorneys offices since 2001 were against Democratic office holders, while the majority of recently fired U.S. Attorneys prosecuted political corruption cases against Republican office holders. If this is correct, isn't this very damaging to the DOJ's arguments?

Dan Eggen: I have seen that study, though I confess I have not had a chance to examine it closely. My hunch is that the argument from DOJ would be that Democrats tend to hold power in large urban areas, and those areas tend to yield a fair amount of corruption cases involving local officials. But that's only a guess.

Clearly in recent years most, but certainly not all, of the criminal cases involving Congress have involved Republicans, who until this year controlled Capitol Hill.

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Dale City, Va.: Why would it be unconstitutional, as DOJ has the first chance to appoint someone? This seems like a way to never be held to fulfilling the obligation to appoint someone. Not doing your job should not be rewarded with even more power. But then again, that seems normal these days.

Dan Eggen: The argument is that a federal court has no business appointing someone in the executive branch, especially someone who then may appear in the same courtroom. I must say that even some attorneys with Democratic credentials have told me they are sympathetic to this argument.

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Washington: I was perplexed by the reasoning offered by Main Justice for the firings. Wouldn't it have been better to simply say, "U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and a decision was made to ask these six to step down"? No other explanation needed. As I recall, when President Clinton entered office he has asked all but one U.S. Attorney to resign, in what appeared to be a clearly political move.

Dan Eggen: As I mentioned earlier, both Clinton and the current president fired nearly all the U.S. attorneys after reaching the White House. The difference here is that it was done mid-stream under rather murky circumstances. Justice did try that more general approach at first, but as pressure from Congress continued, for some reason they chose to have the deputy attorney general announce that the attorneys were fired for "performance-related" problems. Needless to say, this did not please the fired U.S. attorneys.

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Washington: What are the consequences for the average citizen of Bush replacing these attorneys with political partisans? Can you give an example of what difference it would make?

Dan Eggen: This is an interesting question, though not one with an easy answer. The possibilities really are endless, I suppose, depending on what priorities a new U.S. attorney in a given place might choose to focus on.

I guess to take one example, the former U.S. attorney in Phoenix, Paul Charlton, locked horns with main DOJ on some death penalty cases, and his recommendation against capital punishment was overruled in at least two cases. Because Justice officials (anonymously of course) have pointed to this as a key problem for Charlton, one can presume that whoever takes Charlton's place will be more aggressive in pushing the death penalty for federal cases in Arizona.

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Houston, Texas: Why on Earth is this not a bigger story? Are we just distracted? If Clinton had done this, the Right would be burning him in effigy on every street corner.

Dan Eggen: We certainly have viewed it as a notable and interesting story and have spent a fair amount of time and column inches on it.

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Sewickley, Pa.: How much impact will Congress have on this matter in your opinion?

Dan Eggen: It's hard to say at this point. The war debate has drowned out most everything in recent weeks, of course, but several lawmakers have continued to focus on this. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation earlier in the month that would revert to the old system for appointing interim prosecutors, but that bill was blocked from the floor by a Senate Republican. We'll have to see how that plays out.

The House Judiciary Committee also has announced that it will hold hearings in March on the issue, so it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. The Senate Judiciary vote was interesting because it included approval from three Republicans.

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Baltimore: Has Fitzgerald's name been mentioned as at least a candidate to be fired? After the pursuing the Valerie Plame case for years after he knew he had no crime, I'd think the idea of firing him would at least occur to somebody.

Dan Eggen: I will post this just because there have been a number of questions along this line, inquiring about the identity of the other prosecutor.

We obviously put everything significant in the paper that we can confirm, and all that I have been able to confirm so far about the eighth unidentified prosecutor is that this person was called and informed on Dec. 7 that he or she was being fired, but has somehow negotiated out of it, at least until now. I have not confirmed a name.

But I am always open to tips if anyone's got one! My email is eggend@washpost.com and my direct line is 202-334-7542.

Dan Eggen: Well, I think we're out of time. Thanks to everyone for your interest, and please keep reading!

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