The Justice Department has removed the entire U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Texas from further work related to the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. The broad recusal is intended to avoid conflicts that could impede a fresh investigation being led by former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), a senior Justice Department official said yesterday.
Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said U.S. Attorney Bill Blagg, whose office handled the criminal trial of the Branch Davidians in 1994, requested that his Western District office be recused from further work on Waco. Holder said that it is routine to approve recusal requests and that David Margolis, the senior department official who handled the details of the matter, told him he had never turned down a recusal request.
"People who were involved in the original trial are potentially now going to be witnesses in the Danforth deal," Holder said. "It is an appearance thing to make sure people who are potentially witnesses are not actively involved in anything ongoing. If anything, it just makes it less difficult for [Danforth] to accomplish his mission."
One of the attorneys in Blagg's office who is being recused is Assistant U.S. Attorney William Johnston, who recently sent Attorney General Janet Reno a strongly worded letter warning that she had been misled by people within her department about the Waco siege. Holder said the broad recusal had nothing to do with Johnston's letter.
Holder, who is second-in-command at the Justice Department, has been overseeing the Danforth probe since last week, when Reno recused herself from the matter because she too anticipates being a witness in the Danforth inquiry.
The Danforth probe was launched last week after political furor over new disclosures that potentially incendiary devices were used by the FBI during the April 19, 1993, assault on the Waco compound that ended with about 75 Branch Davidians dying in a fire. Reno had said for the past six years that no potentially flammable devices were used, and FBI officials continue to maintain that the military tear gas canisters fired that day did not start the blaze. Danforth said he wants to determine whether government agents killed people and whether there was a coverup.
Holder said the recusal also was granted because officials in the Western District of Texas were present at "an interview" where the tear gas canisters were discussed. "My office has been recused from all . . . matters to avoid any potential or appearance of a conflict of interest," Blagg said.
Holder transferred authority to work on the case to U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of the Eastern District of Texas.