Firings of U.S. Attorneys Draw Senate's Attention

The Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony on the firings of several U.S. attorneys. Critics say they were political victims. The Justice Department says some appointees did not reflect the president's crime-fighting priorities.

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This question was posed at a hearing yesterday held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Is the Justice Department politicizing the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys? Some senators think the answer is yes, and they're considering legislation to deal with it as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer opened the hearing by saying that in his 24 years of Justice Department oversight:

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I have never seen the department more politicized and pushed further away from its mission as an apolitical enforcer of the rule of law.

SHAPIRO: As evidence, Schumer points to the case of Arkansas' U.S. attorney. Bud Cummins was asked to resign last summer after six years on the job. His replacement had worked for White House adviser Karl Rove. Schumer asked Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty whether there was any good reason to oust Cummins.

Senator SCHUMER: Bud Cummins has said that he was told he had done nothing wrong and he was simply being asked to resign to let someone else have the job. Does he have it right?

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (U.S. Deputy Attorney General): I accept that as being accurate, as best I know the facts.

SHAPIRO: That seems to conflict with the statement Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made at a hearing last month.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Attorney General): I would never ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons, or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it.

SHAPIRO: Deputy Attorney General McNulty argued there's no contradiction there. He said replacing a U.S. attorney who's doing well with someone who happens to have political experience is not the same as changing the U.S. attorney for political reasons. If this debate were all about one man in Arkansas, it probably would not get a Senate oversight hearing.

But, at least six other U.S. attorneys were asked to resign last December. In San Diego, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam prosecuted corrupt Republican former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. McNulty told the committee that Lam's dismissal has nothing to do with her office's ongoing congressional corruption investigation.

Mr. MCNULTY: Any investigation that follows from that has to run its full course. Public corruption is a top priority for this department. And we would only want to encourage all public corruption investigations and in no way want to discourage them.

SHAPIRO: McNulty will not go into any detail about why Ms. Lam and others were fired in December beyond to say:

Mr. MCNULTY: All of the changes that we made were performance-related.

SHAPIRO: While he said that, a Justice Department spokeswoman quietly went around to the press tables distributing copies of letters from members of Congress to the Justice Department. Those letters complained that Lam wasn't doing enough to prosecute smugglers on the border.

Replacement U.S. attorneys used to require Senate confirmation. That changed under the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Now the attorney general can appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely. Some lawmakers have accused the Justice Department of trying to make an end run around congressional oversight.

McNulty said that's simply not true.

Mr. MCNULTY: In every single case where a United States attorney position is vacant, the administration is committed to filling that position with the United States attorney who is confirmed by the Senate.

SHAPIRO: Be that as it may, some of the senators at yesterday's hearing seemed intent on pushing legislation that would go back to the old way of doing things, where the attorney general can appoint an interim U.S. attorney for 120 days. If the Senate hasn't confirmed a nominee by then, the responsibility would fall to a judge.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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