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Inside the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorneys Controversy

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Stuart M. Gerson
Acting Attorney General, Clinton Administration
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 10:00 AM

Stuart M. Gerson, acting attorney general at the start of the Clinton administration and now a D.C. lawyer, was online Wednesday, March 14 at 10 a.m. ET to explain the relationship between U.S. Attorneys and the Justice Department and discuss the firings and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Gonzales: 'Mistakes Were Made' (Post, March 14)

The transcript follows.

Gerson is a Washington-based lawyer with Epstein Becker & Green, incolved in defense against antitrust and other corporate litigation. He was Acting Attorney General at the start of the Clinton administration and led the Department of Justice's Civil Division from 1989 to 1993, which included leading federal litigation after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

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Lyme, Conn.: The "Democratic" response to the firing of the U.S. Attorneys is that these actions were political. The "Republican" response is that the Clinton Administration fired all but one U.S. Attorney at the beginning of the Clinton Administration -- so of course, it is all political. What is the difference between these mid-Presidency firings and cleaning house at the beginning of a Presidency, if any?

Stuart M. Gerson: There is a difference, but I do not find it to be an important or material one. It is customary for a President to replace U.S. Attorneys at the beginning of a term. Ronald Reagan replaced every sitting U.S. Attorney when he appointed his first Attorney General. President Clinton, acting through me as Acting Attorney General, did the same thing, even with few permanent candidates in mind. What is unusual about the current situation is that it happened in the middle of a term. However, all of the incumbents had served more than the four years presumed in their original commission and, I suggest, replacing them is entirely the prerogative of the executive, as each deposed U.S. Attorney has agreed. The personnel practices employed, giving inaccurate reasons for terminating them and not giving them the courtesy of notice, are, as the AG now concedes, unacceptable.

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Omaha, Neb.: Mr. Gerson, is there not scope here for criminal charges to be brought against Gonzales, Rove and Bush for obstruction of justice? It seems quite obvious that these firings were aimed purely at thwarting investigations into corrupt conduct by Republicans. Surely our system does not permit prosecutors to be fired in order to shield those guilty of criminal conduct, such as Randy Cunningham, from the law.

Stuart M. Gerson: I don't think we can say that any of this activity was intended to "thwart" an investigation, though that avenue will be pursued in oversight investigations in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Duke Cunningham case couldn't have been brought without the approval of Main Justice, which has taken a great deal of credit for the case. Indeed, much of what we have seen suggests criticism of various U.S. Attorneys for not moving quickly or decisively enough. In sum, obstruction is a serious charge and the evidence for such a charge has not emerged, at least at this point.

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San Francisco: Just to clarify, you were a holdover from the George H.W. Bush Administration during the difficulties Bill Clinton had in finding an Attorney General in early 1993, is that correct?

Stuart M. Gerson: That is correct. I had been the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division during Bush I, and was Acting Attorney General at the beginning of the Clinton administration.

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Elkton, Va.: Mr. Gerson -- from the Department of Justice e-mail messages that that I have read, I noticed that Harriet Miers was involved in the U.S. Attorney discussions as late as December 2006 (and maybe later). Didn't she leave the administration before that?

washingtonpost.com: Miers Steps Down As White House Gears Up for Battle (Post, Jan. 5)

Stuart M. Gerson: This article states that Ms. Miers resignation was accepted on January 5. That would seem to answer the question.

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Carlisle, Pa.: One question remains to be investigated -- who inserted into the 2006 Patriot Act reauthorization the provision that permits replacing U.S. Attorneys with new appointees without Senate confirmation?

washingtonpost.com: Brett Tolman -- then on Sen. Arlen Specter's staff, now a U.S. Attorney in Utah. Click here for more.

Stuart M. Gerson: This was a subject that was aired during hearings in which I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The provision of which you write did not have to do with introducing appointments without Senate confirmation, it had to do with the selection of interim persons following a vacancy. The provision that it replaced allowed for the Executive Branch to make an interim appointment for 120 days and, if the position were not permanently filled, for the chief judge of the district in question to make an appointment for another 120 days. The Patriot Act provision eliminated the judicial appointment function. The provision -- which Sen. Specter made clear was provided openly by the Administration -- passed without debate. It appears that a bipartisan Senate (at least on this issue) will return to the former method of appointing interim U.S. Attorneys. Permanent appointments, by custom, have been, and will continue to be, made with Senate confirmation.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Has this happened in other administrations? And for what reasons were they fired?

Stuart M. Gerson: "This" has happened in virtually every administration. U.S. Attorneys sometimes have been fired outright for prosecutorial misconduct or personal misconduct. Resignations have been sought and obtained where there are policy disagreements between the President and Attorney General on one hand and the U.S. Attorney on the other. What is unusual about the present cases is the bad personnel work and inconsiderateness in dealing with the people terminated -- all agree, however, that this was the prerogative of the Administration.

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Washington: I don't what Omaha is talking about ... they were looking into the Democratic fraud in 2000 and 2004 by registering illegals and felons to vote, so if anything the Dems showing outrage is a means to contain their own crimes.

Stuart M. Gerson: Yours is a statement of position, not a question. I'll only note that complaints like those we are hearing are far from unique in this administration.

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Washington: How were these prosecutors political loyalty assessed (or was it)? If it was, how do we justify this?

Stuart M. Gerson: I was not involved in the evaluation of these persons, so can't answer definitively. I don't think, however, that the administration has to justify itself, except if evidence emerges that replacements were made to thwart investigations. As I've noted earlier, I don't see any evidence of this.

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Washington: I read through the e-mails, and it reads like Alberto Gonzalez was a part of the plan, as he was responsible for making some of the calls. Is it possible that his Chief of Staff came up with this whole "plan," then assigned his boss, the Attorney General, a role in the plan -- but still kept him in the dark, as Gonzales seems to claim?

washingtonpost.com: Excerpts From E-Mails on U.S. Attorneys (AP, March 13)

Stuart M. Gerson: This is the sort of question that is unanswerable except by the alleged participants. It is possible that a subordinate acted without the knowledge of the Attorney General in getting things going; it is unlikely that any resignations were sought or tendered without the Attorney General knowing about them. Indeed, yesterday Mr. Gonzales admitted to poor procedural work but stood behind the firings, which he said were for good cause. I'd add that political reasons are acceptable -- these are political appointments after all -- except where moves are made to thwart appropriate prosecutions. Again, there is no current evidence of that.

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Washington: At what point, if any, do these firings create undue executive branch intrusions in the judicial branch and its workings, thus becoming a constitutional crisis?

Stuart M. Gerson: I don't think that there is any point where there is an Executive Branch intrusion into the Judicial function. There is some evidence of potentially improper Legislative contacts with the Executive, but that is another issue entirely.

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Germantown, Md.: I'll ask this of The Post reporters too, but are you aware of any objective reports of performance with respect to the fired U.S. Attorneys and how they performed in relationship to their peers (e.g. prosecutions, convictions, overturns on appeals)? I know they won't tell the whole story, but the numbers have the virtue of being harder to spin politically.

Stuart M. Gerson: There is some objective information available with respect to several of the deposed U.S. Attorneys underperforming with respect to illegal immigration cases, gun cases, and voter fraud cases, and with respect to not meeting the Administration's expectations as to seeking the death penalty in those rare cases where it is applicable. In other cases, the decision seems to be a question of political preference. While there is nothing improper about it, it can't be documented numerically.

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Cary, N.C.: I am not as concerned over the firings as I am concerned about the use of emergency appointments to bypass confirmation hearings. That seems to be abusive. Firings for political purposes hardly seem to be emergency circumstances.

Stuart M. Gerson: The term "emergency appointments" is yours. What are being made are "interim" appointments, and the persons chosen for these almost always are highly qualified career prosecutors, usually the First Assistant United States Attorney. The administration has pledged to submit all permanent nominations to advance scrutiny by the home state Senators, and Senate confirmation will be sought in every case. See my earlier comment with respect to likely legislation.

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Washington: The provision allowing for the interim appointments, which overturned decades of precedent, was snuck in by an unelected staffer in a lame-duck Congress at the behest of the executive. Please explain why this should not be troubling.

Stuart M. Gerson: What is troubling is not that anything was "snuck" in -- something that both the majority and minority agree never happened -- but that neither congressional staff nor the legislators themselves took the time to read or analyze the provision.

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Germantown, Md.: As Attorney General, how hard did you find it to balance the occasionally conflicting requirements of the job -- loyalty to the President, and being the nonpartisan top law enforcer?

Stuart M. Gerson: I always tried to give my best advice as to what the law and good policy required. As is the case with any client, the President doesn't necessarily follow that advice. I had the advantage of considerable objectivity with President Clinton -- given that we are of different parties -- and, at least on subjects as to which I advised, my counsel was followed uniformly. Your question is a very important one, not just for an Attorney General, but for any lawyer. There can be a point where one's loyalty is best manifested by standing up to the client and, in rare circumstances, resigning if illegal activities are going to be pursued. I never experienced anything like that, however.

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Wellesley, Mass.: In general, what are the legal implications for people in Congress or the administration who apply pressure on prosecutors -- telling them to stop a line of investigation, etc.?

Stuart M. Gerson: The Executive Branch properly can pressure prosecutors to follow its policies. Legislators, like other interested parties, never should make direct contact with prosecutors or other subordinates at the risk of obstructing justice. The implications for an executive who stops a line of appropriate investigation are political, as was the case in the Nixon administration, and potentially legal if there is tampering with evidence, suborning perjury, etc. The implications for erring congressmen are both political -- re: House and Senate rules violations --and legal.

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Washington: Hi Mr. Gerson. What is the interagency propriety of the White House counsel making personnel decisions for the Department of Justice? Is that appropriate, or does the White House counsel have a broad responsibility to advise the president, even when it comes to personnel within the federal agencies?

Stuart M. Gerson: Executive branch latitude indeed is wide. What an administration should avoid, however, is interfering with the objectivity of the advice being provided by the Justice Department and the prosecutorial independence, at least to a point, of the U.S. Attorneys.

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Alexandria, Va.: I can't help but get the feeling that the "outrage" from Congress is only the realization sinking in as to how much power they conceded to the Executive under the auspices of the Patriot Act.

Stuart M. Gerson: The Patriot Act necessarily presents difficulties, and the balance between security and liberty requires constant debate and consideration. This is not a static situation and protections are, if anything, on the increase.

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New York: What are the logistics behind replacing every U.S. Attorney? How long would it take to complete a full transfusion of U.S. Attorneys? It seems like the White House shouldn't be conducting mass layoffs of U.S. Attorneys, whether mid-term or at the beginning of the term. But how can these positions be eliminated without hiring replacements? They must not be so important if we easily can go without them.

Stuart M. Gerson: As I noted earlier, President Clinton replaced all 93 U.S. Attorneys without many permanent candidates to replace them. President Reagan did much the same thing. It takes months actually to get successors in place. Note in the present case that we are talking about the replacement of eight of 93. As to the interim occupants of these offices, they almost always are very experienced, non-political career people. Most of the work in these offices is done by career professionals who are both very capable and very dedicated.

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Anonymous:"Stuart M. Gerson: There is some objective information available with respect to several of the deposed U.S. Attorneys underperforming with respect to illegal immigration cases, gun cases, and voter fraud cases."

I don't think this is completely true. The reporting that I read said several of the fired U.S. Attorneys in fact got excellent performance reviews, including the attorney in New Mexico.

Stuart M. Gerson: I believe my statement to be accurate. For example, 18 legislators, including Sen. Feinstein, complained in writing about the lack of "coyote" prosecutions in San Diego. There were similar complaints in New Mexico. You also are correct in stating that several of the U.S. Attorneys got "excellent" reviews -- those reviews were conducted by career and administrative staff and mainly concerned how the various offices were run. They were not concerned with high level policy matters, though. It is not surprising, therefore, that a U.S. Attorney might get a good review in one area but a bad one where the criteria are different.

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New Hampshire: Hello Mr. Gerson, and thanks for taking my question. Alberto Gonzales was under oath when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 18. It seems now that he was not being honest in that sworn testimony. What are the ramifications for this?

Stuart M. Gerson: It would appear that he lacked certain information (which he acknowledges was not acceptable) but didn't knowingly mislead. I believe him. Inasmuch as he, acting by delegation from the President, has the authority to seek the replacement of any or all of the U.S. Attorneys, he has nothing to be untruthful about in the final analysis -- except if there was misconduct with respect to any given case. But there is no evidence of that.

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Washington: It seems to me that AG Gonzales's transgressions are (1) having a political tin ear, (2) not telling his president and Congress what really was going on, and (3) insufficient respect for due process and the law in general. If you were advising this president about whether to retain the current Attorney General, how would you advise him?

Stuart M. Gerson: As to the Attorney General, he has the confidence of the President, with whom he has worked for a long time. He is not a gifted public presenter but his staff finds him to be an effective and capable leader. I'd note the recent appointment of Fred Fielding as White House Counsel -- Fielding is extremely experienced and will help substantially in anticipating some of the political issues that have come up with respect to the administration of justice.

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Washington: Hi there -- can you explain what the rationale is behind presidents replacing all the U.S. Attorneys, as these are not political positions?

Stuart M. Gerson: But these are "political" positions. Each U.S. Attorney is appointed by the President for a notional term of four years and, by custom, have been submitted for Senate approval. It a "rationale" is required it is that the chief executive is entitled to pick his political subordinates and require that they carry out his policies.

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Detroit: "As to the interim occupants of these offices, they are almost always very experienced, non-political career people."

According to The Washington Post articles, this was not true in the case of the interim appointments in Arkansas and Utah. In one case, the interim appointment was the head of opposition research for Karl Rove, and for Utah -- Kyle Sampson wanted that job, even though he had spent no time as a prosecutor.

Stuart M. Gerson: While the Arkansas person you mention had indeed worked for Karl Rove, he also was an experienced prosecutor whose background as a prosecutor was considerably deeper than what the deposed incumbent had at the beginning of his term. As to Utah, Sen. Hatch and others insisted on an experienced prosecutor and Mr. Sampson, as you will note from news reports, did not get the job -- or apparently much consideration for it.

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Washington: Do you think the fact that this previously little-known power given by the Patriot Act will cause more scrutiny of the Act to see what other powers were transferred that also have gone under the public radar? And what is the supposed purpose of the appointing power, and how would it better ready our nation against attack?

Stuart M. Gerson: The Patriot Act, as it should be, is the subject of constant debate and scrutiny. I don't think however that there is anything else in in that is quite analogous to the interim U.S. Attorney appointment provision.

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Durham, N.C.: If the U.S. Attorneys are replaced every four years, as you say, then did Clinton replace them twice? Did Reagan?

Stuart M. Gerson: I didn't say that U.S. Attorneys are replaced every four years -- what I said was that they had notional four year terms. Some serve longer (as was the case for all eight of the persons lately replaced). Most serve far shorter because many seek political office or higher-paying jobs in the private sector. In some cases, Presidents Reagan and Clinton made multiple appointments.

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Pittsburgh: Your answers seem very generous towards the Administration and Gonzales. Do you have any conflict of interest that we should know about?

Stuart M. Gerson: I consider the President a friend, but I hope that you view my discussion as objective, because it is intended to be. I criticize the Administration for its clumsy handling of this situation and for the misinformation that certain people have given out. Given that, at the end of the day, the U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President -- and because there is no evidence that anyone has sought to block an investigation, I tend to think that more has been made of this situation than it warrants. However, with the change in the political dominance of the legislature, that is to be expected. In the current political environment, I think that you can expect that the President will continue to be a target for criticism. Responsible citizenship requires separating the wheat from the chaff.

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Washington: Throughout this discussion, you seem to project an air of indifference to the firings except to say they were handled poorly. The question is this:

Understanding they are political appointments, is there no zone of independent pursuit of justice that politics should not cross in these posts. Have we lost something if these positions are pressured to pursue criminal investigations of people based on suspects' politics?

Stuart M. Gerson: Your concerns at least theoretically are legitimate. I just don't see that anyone is being pursued because of his politics -- and I say that not just with regard to the current administration but the previous one too. The best assurance of the kind of independence that you properly speak of is in the mass of career people who make most of the decisions and who are extremely dedicated. I think we've seen enough cases where administrations have prosecuted their own party colleagues (Scooter Libby and Duke Cunningham most recently) to conclude that ideology has not been a decisive factor in prosecutions. Putting pressure on prosecutors to bring cases based on the evidence, not ideology, is another matter. And we should be concerned about that, too.

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Abingdon, Md.: I am certainly no fan of this administration, but after all the dust settles on this matter, is this just a case of incompetence on the way this matter was handled and not something illegal?

Stuart M. Gerson: It would appear that way.

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Cleveland: Gonzales's defense of his conduct seems to be that he was out of the loop. When you were the acting Attorney General, can you imagine a scenario where your staff proposed firing 8 U.S. Attorneys and you limited your role to merely initialing their memo?

Stuart M. Gerson: I know for certain what I was aware of and did with respect to U.S. Attorneys. I can't make that statement with respect to Mr. Gonzales. He has accepted responsibility for poor administration in this matter and that would seem to be warranted.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I saw part of the hearings on C-SPAN and was somewhat shocked when Sen. Graham said he wants to rotate people through the attorneys' positions so they can get experience. Since when is it his decision on such personnel changes, and doesn't that statement, in and of itself, say the positions have become too politicized? Thanks.

Stuart M. Gerson: Well, Sen. Graham might state an opinion but he has no authority in the matter. There is a benefit to bringing in new blood from time to time in any organization, but I would question the utility of making change just for the sake of making change.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: This was reported this morning ...

"In an e-mail dated May 11, 2006, Sampson urged the White House counsel's office to call him regarding "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam," who then the U.S. attorney for southern California. Earlier that morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's corruption investigation of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., had expanded to include another California Republican, Rep Jerry Lewis."

This doesn't disturb you?

Stuart M. Gerson: What would disturb me would be the interference with the cases that you described. I think we can state objectively that that didn't happen. Duke was prosecuted with the specific approval of the Attorney General and whatever other related cases there might be are going forward irrespective of whatever the now-departed Mr. Sampson might have been concerned with. The only "problem" that I know of that the Administration had with Ms. Lam was with respect to immigration cases, about which 18 legislators had complained.

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New York: Mr. Gerson, thanks for taking questions this morning. Fred Fielding was brought in as White House counsel to help deal with the expected onslaught of congressional investigations. Is there any indication of his hand in this U.S. Attorney affair? Seems that he should have been all over the White House information, but instead it's been trickling out in a dismaying fashion. I thought he was an old hand at this?

Stuart M. Gerson: Mr. Fielding had not arrived at the White House on December 7, when the U.S. Attorneys were informed that their resignations were being sought.

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Madison, Wis.: Mr. Gerson, would you at least concede that there is the appearance of impropriety when a U.S. Attorney is removed in the midst of a case where high-ranking Republican lawmakers and CIA officials are implicated (as in Carol Lam's case)?

Stuart M. Gerson: "Appearances" are in the eye of the beholder. Your question implies that you believe that there is such an appearance so, at least for you, I must concede the point. Appearance is not unimportant because if there is too much of it, the confidence people have in the administration of justice is diminished. However, what I've tried to do in my comments is to go from appearance to substance. Therefore, putting the incompetence of the process aside, I still don't see where any case involving a Republican has been blocked. The evidence is otherwise. Indeed, investigations seem to be continuing in this area notwithstanding the departure of Ms. Lam.

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Bethesda, Md.: If, as stated by many, these firings are perfectly normal then why do you suppose Gonzales and others have provided such "incomplete" testimony to Congress? If they haven't done anything wrong then why would they put themselves at such grave risk by giving false testimony -- or are they just really confused over there about what's going on?

Stuart M. Gerson: This looks like a venial, not a venal matter. Bad staff work would appear to be a more probable explanation than lying.

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Washington:"The only "problem" that I know of that the Administration had with Ms. Lam was with respect to immigration cases about which 18 legislators had complained." But DOJ responded to Feinstein and said that she was doing well in terms of immigration cases. Why is that not relevant?

Stuart M. Gerson: It is not irrelevant, and the Judiciary Committee likely will explore it. I note that several members of that Committee were among the complainers on the issue and that there is nothing wrong with an administration saying that if a U.S. Attorney is not attending to one of its priorities that a change might not be in order.

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Huron, S.D.: Good morning sir. Will the terminated federal prosecutors in question have any legal recourse back to the Department of Justice because of the now-public outing of the circumstances of their terminations? In the private sector, discussing the termination of an employee is a quick trip to a lawsuit. Thank you.

Stuart M. Gerson: They will have no legal recourse. The statements in question, both in the Congress and the Executive branches, are governmentally privileged and protected by the First Amendment.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: "Brett Tolman -- then on Sen. Arlen Specter's staff, now a U.S. Attorney in Utah"

So the person behind the new power of the Attorney General to appoint U.S. Attorneys is a man who worked for a Republican senator and now is a U.S. Attorney? Seems to me this is the man to blame more than Gonzales, Miers, Domenici, et al.

Stuart M. Gerson: Mr. Tolman was on the Judiciary Committee staff and was a qualified prosecutor before his appointment. I'm not sure what one would blame him for.

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Greenfield, Mass.: Mr. Gerson -- The attorneys allegedly were let go for performance related issues, which may not have been the case. If they could prove damages, do you think that they would have an action for wrongful termination

Stuart M. Gerson: No, for reasons stated earlier. Their positions were discretionary to the President.

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New York: U.S. Attorneys serve at the discretion of the President, but how far removed from politics have those decisions been in the past? Is there any sort of precedent for this current situation?

Stuart M. Gerson: I've answered this question earlier. There is nothing new about political wrangling about political offices.

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Chicago: Mr. Gerson, thank you for your time. While my natural inclination is to ascribe nefarious motives to anything this administration does, having looked over the documents The Post has made available, I wonder: what is the "there" that's supposed to be there? I realize there are accusations that the Gonzales Eight allegedly were being targeted because of failures to follow up on claims of voter fraud that aided Democrats, but aside from Iglesias's claim of that, is there any other evidence, especially as relates to the other seven? On the other side is the theory that the administration was looking down the road to 2008, and the possibility of knee-capping Democrats in the congressional districts encompassed by these judicial districts. Thoughts on that?

Stuart M. Gerson: I tend to agree with your "there, there" observation. As to the 2008 election, I think there is something to your suggestion, particularly in Arkansas -- that the administration might have wanted to showcase some young, potential rivals to incumbents. I don't think this should be done as a rule, but I find it unobjectionable in certain cases.

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Alexandria, Va.: It is often said that political appointees, serve "at the pleasure of the President." Doesn't that phrase also mean that the President can fire those people, with or without cause?

Stuart M. Gerson: It does, and the persons in question all have conceded it.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: What are future professional prospects of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, as they more or less were dismissed for not measuring up to the job (according to the Justice Department)?

Stuart M. Gerson: Some will do better than others. All, I imagine, will do well enough.

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Detroit: "Therefore, putting the incompetence of the process aside, I still don't see where any case involving a Republican has been blocked."

The flip side of this is also important. Paul Krugman just cited a study where Democrats were investigated and indicted at a much higher rate than Republicans during this administration. Isn't that important?

Stuart M. Gerson: It might be, but it might not be as well. Compare figures in the previous administration and I'm not sure that you will see much of a difference. Certainly Randy Duke won't take any solace from your observation. Much of the weighting towards Democrats historically has resulted from the fact that Democrats have controlled the governments of many of the largest urban areas, where corruption has run rampant. Prosecutions of Republicans in Illinois might suggest that things are changing.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Hi Stuart! I'm neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but I'm still fascinated that Congressman Jefferson's case has dropped off the map. Why isn't this coming forth?

Stuart M. Gerson: I wish I had more information on that subject. One thing for sure: whatever is going on couldn't reflect any Republican cover-up.

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Minneapolis: Is there any legal way for Congress to remove the Attorney General against the desire of the administration?

Stuart M. Gerson: Yes, through conviction in the Senate of an impeachment brought by the House.

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Bethesda, Md.: I do not buy the explanation that voter fraud investigations were going slow and that's why they wanted to fire the lawyers -- do you?

Stuart M. Gerson: I don't know and hence don't have an opinion. The New Mexico delegation apparently thought so.

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Richmond, Va.: Okay, so Gonzales "takes responsibility," but what does that mean exactly? As far as I can tell, nothing changes: The prosecutors are still fired, they are replaced by Bush "loyalists," some hearings conclude Bush and Rove, etc., had a hand in the firings, but then life moves on, right? In short, are there any long-lasting consequences to this situation?

Stuart M. Gerson: I think it unlikely that this will be an issue in the next Presidential election, the place where issues will count the most.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Is Alberto Gonzales popular among Senate Republicans right now?

Stuart M. Gerson: I can't answer for others.

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San Francisco: Can you please confirm the figures presented by Karl Rove about President Clinton having fired all 93 of the U.S. Attorneys at the beginning of his term, and dismissing more than 120 in total? Rove presented these figures in Little Rock last week.

washingtonpost.com: Rove Doing His Part to Help Shape a Positive Legacy for Bush (Post, March 9)

Stuart M. Gerson: I know because of my involvement in it that the first figure is correct; I can't comment on the other 27.

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San Francisco: Unrelated to the firings of the U.S. Attorneys, but do you, sir, have a personal sense of frustration with regard to the continued appeals on the part of Exxon and their Alaskan crime?

Stuart M. Gerson: I vigorously represented the United States when in government on the Exxon-Valdes matter. I therefore don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on it now.

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Prescott, Ariz.: As it seems that AG Alberto Gonzales and White House Counsel Harriet Miers are both up to their necks in this fiasco, can you speculate on how this would have played out if one of them were now on the Supreme Court?

Stuart M. Gerson: The political winds would have blown at hurricane force, but the evidence of misconduct still would not have been visible.

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Vernon, British Columbia: Hello and thank you for running this discussion. In Attorney General Gonzales's statement yesterday he said that the attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. I always thought they served the citizens and were sworn to uphold the Constitution. Which is true? Am I wrong that the Justice Department is supposed to be unbiased, and politics aren't on the table? Or is that just being idealistic and unrealistic?

Stuart M. Gerson: This is a good question and the answer derives from what one means by "politics." These are political offices and should be subjected to political processes and public scrutiny. Their conduct should not be "political" in the sense of becoming biased or in violation of the Constitution. Hold on to your idealism, but also your realism.

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Detroit: Do you have any type of working relationship with this administration?

Stuart M. Gerson: I do not. I am a purely private lawyer.

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Arlington, Va.: One of the columnists mentioned in Howard Kurtz's Media Notes this morning made this point: "If competence and performance were the reasons for the terminations, why did Justice wait almost two years to do anything about it?"

That's what troubles me about this -- the original proposal (ostensibly from Harriet Miers) was to replace all 93 U.S. Attorneys, an idea that quickly was killed but somehow devolved into the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, at least some of whom seem to have been quite competent. Can you comment on the delay?

washingtonpost.com: Purging Prosecutors (Post, March 14)

Stuart M. Gerson: I don't know whether "delay" was a factor or not. At some point you act; should it have been earlier, I don't know.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for chatting, sir. I know you're looking at this from the perspective of law so you may not want to comment on this, but I have to say that despite what may or may not be allowed by law, I'm not surprised that an issue like this "feels" wrong to people and undermines their faith in the Justice system. Even if it has been done for decades and by all parties, and is entirely within existing frameworks, it doesn't "feel" American to me. I think that explains the "there, there," for some of us.

Stuart M. Gerson: The administration's missteps contributed to this feeling. That should have been avoided and the process would have been better conducted with greater transparency, particularly in dealing with the U.S. Attorneys themselves.

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Arlington, Va.: I think Sen. Ensign of Nevada may be the only one who comes out of this looking good, as he told those doing this they shouldn't remove the U.S. Attorney in Nevada on grounds he was doing a good job and there wouldn't be a replacement. He, like Lam of San Diego, was rated lowest in the rankings.

washingtonpost.com: Dr. Ensign Treats the Elephant in the Room (washingtonpost.com, March 13)

Stuart M. Gerson: Thanks for your comment.

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Arlington, Va.: I guess I'm just a tad confused. The U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President and can be fired for any reason or no reason. Then why all the fuss? It has been said that they were deemed not sufficiently aggressive on voter fraud; why has this been portrayed as partisan? Are there other policy differences that played a hand? And again, if they can be fired for no reason, what's the problem?

Stuart M. Gerson: I think I've covered this already, but I generally agree with you, subject to the caveat that there is no evidence of tampering with ongoing cases.

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Stuart M. Gerson: Thanks for your interest in this topic. I've got to go back to earning a living. Best wishes to all.

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