An eighth U.S. attorney announced her resignation yesterday, the latest in a wave of forced departures of federal prosecutors who have clashed with the Justice Department over the death penalty and other issues.
Margaret Chiara, the 63-year-old U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., told her staff that she was leaving her post after more than five years, officials said. Sources familiar with the case confirmed that she was among a larger group of prosecutors who were first asked to resign Dec. 7.
Chiara is the second female U.S. attorney to be dismissed. The other is Carol Lam of San Diego. Before the firings, 15 of 93 U.S. attorneys were women, department records show.
The firings have been criticized by lawmakers in both parties and have prompted proposals in Congress to restrict the ability of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to appoint interim prosecutors indefinitely.
Chiara declined to comment on her departure, which is effective March 16. She will be replaced on an interim basis by Russell C. Stoddard, who recently joined the Grand Rapids office, officials said.
U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell, the chief judge in Michigan's Western District, said in an interview yesterday that Chiara has an excellent reputation in Grand Rapids.
"This is a very classy, distinguished, highly regarded public servant," said Bell, who was appointed to the bench during the Reagan administration. "She's one of the best United States attorneys we've had in this district, and all of my colleagues agree. . . . To have her suddenly disappear without warning catches us all flat-footed."
Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told senators earlier this month that all but one of the prosecutors were fired for "performance-related" reasons. McNulty said that former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock was removed so the job could be given to a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
Nearly all of the dismissed prosecutors had positive job reviews, but many had run into political trouble with Washington over immigration, capital punishment or other issues, according to prosecutors and others. At least four also were presiding over high-profile public corruption investigations when they were dismissed.
Chiara -- who had once studied to be a nun -- is personally opposed to capital punishment, but in 2002 she presided over the first death penalty case in Michigan in more than 60 years. A year later, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft rejected a plea agreement proposed by Chiara's office in a separate murder case, according to news reports.
Another of the fired U.S. attorneys, Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix, also clashed with Washington over the death penalty.
Justice officials have been evasive about the number of fired prosecutors. McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee that fewer than 10 had been dismissed, but he declined to elaborate.