Minnesota's Embattled U.S. Attorney Steps Down

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Rachel Paulose, the beleaguered U.S. attorney for Minnesota, is leaving her post to take a position at the Justice Department in Washington, ending a tenure marked by complaints about her management style. She will become counselor to the assistant attorney general in the office of legal policy.


The U.S. attorney in Minnesota is leaving her post. Why that's news is that she is a symbol, critics say, of everything that went wrong in the Justice Department under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

NPR Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro is covering the story, and joins us now.

Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about this woman. What were the complaints about her?

SHAPIRO: Well, her name is Rachel Paulose, and she was the youngest U.S. attorney in the country, 34 years old. She arrived in Minnesota without a lot of prosecutorial experience but with a lot of enthusiasm for the Bush administration's prosecutorial agenda.

Career prosecutors in the office described her as autocratic. They said she punished dissenters. They said she lacked leadership skills. She saw herself as a victim of anti-conservative discrimination in the office. But over the last months, the Justice Department sent one senior official after another out to Minneapolis to try to do damage control. By all accounts, it did very little good.

MONTAGNE: And Ari, it was just 10 days ago that a new attorney general took office. What role might he have played in her departure?

SHAPIRO: Well, we really don't know. And this morning, Rachel Paulose's departure is being portrayed as a sign that the new Attorney General Michael Mukasey wants to quickly clean up all the messes left over from the Gonzales scandal.

But sources tell us that a group of top managers in Paulose's office were prepared to take a voluntary demotion or resign this week if Paulose didn't step down. Now, if that had happened, it would have been a repeat of an embarrassing episode that took place last April when top managers in the office took a voluntary demotion in protest to what they saw as her leadership failing.

So you can imagine that if this has happened again this week, it would have been another black eye for the Justice Department, just when the department is trying to recover from its recent scandals.

So, you know, it could be that the new attorney general wanted to make a statement about how things are going to be different now with the new boss in town. It could also be that he had very little choice, and that Paulose had to step down to save the Justice Department from experiencing another public embarrassment.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a sense - why now? Just because of - I mean, the timing is because of the attorney general?

SHAPIRO: Well, apparently there is some connection here with comments that Paulose made to a conservative Web site recently. She said, essentially, that she is being victimized because she is a young, conservative woman of color. Rachel Paulose was born in India. And sources tell us that this was the last straw for the people in her office who are planning to resign this week if Paulose didn't.

All of this is on top of an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, which looks into whether government employees have been mistreated. The OSC is investigating whether Paulose mishandled classified documents, whether she retaliated against employees who disagreed with her, and whether she used racial epithets against an African-American employee. She denies any wrongdoing. She says she never made those comments.

And, you know, one interesting thing here is I've talked with a lot of people recently who know Rachel Paulose from her work in Washington, who worked with her before she went to Minneapolis - these are Republicans and Democrats. They all say she is a smart person. She is a good lawyer. And she is essentially someone who was given too much responsibility, who was thrown in over her head and assigned with jobs that she just couldn't perform.

And in that way, a lot of people see this is a real case study of what went wrong in the last few years under Gonzales, where somebody who might have been a great leader at the Justice Department 10 years from now, instead, had a tenure that was by all accounts a disaster.

MONTAGNE: And what do you expect to be the aftermath of this resignation?

SHAPIRO: Well, both Minnesota senators, one Republican and one Democrat, have essentially said that they are happy to see Paulose go. In fact, one of them, Republican Norm Coleman, initially supported Paulose for the job. She is now going to back to Washington where she will work as a councilor in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, which, of course, will be a much less public role than the one that she is leaving.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thanks much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro.

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