Congressional Input on U.S. Attorneys

Melissa Block talks with Mary Jo White, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. She talks about what kind of contact she had with members of Congress when she held the post.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Mary Jo White was the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York from 1993 to 2002 - a Clinton appointee. She oversaw numerous high-profile terrorism prosecutions, among other cases. She's now in private practice and joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MARY JO WHITE (Former U.S. attorney, Southern District of New York): Thank you very much.

BLOCK: What sort of contact did you have with members of Congress when you were U.S. attorney there?

Ms. WHITE: Very, very little. Occasionally, some contact about legislative initiatives, you know, asking for suggestions about how to improve the law, make it stronger. But I don't recall any instance of ever having any contact with Congress on an ongoing case or investigation.

BLOCK: None, even though those cases would have been extremely high profile in a number of cases?

Ms. WHITE: I remember no instance of any contact on anything ongoing.

BLOCK: There seem to be two facets of this controversy. One is whether there was pressure from members of Congress, the other is whether the Bush administration itself wanted a change. My understanding is that they're fully within their rights to remove a U.S. attorney. Is that right?

Ms. WHITE: Certainly that - you serve at the president's pleasure, no question about that.

BLOCK: And what would - what would be legitimate reasons for a U.S. attorney to be removed? Or do there have to be any reasons?

Ms. WHITE: Well, I think it's a matter of power and authority that there don't have to be any particular reasons. If the president wants to make a change, the president can make a change. That's what it means to serve at the pleasure of the president. However, I think, you know, throughout, you know, this modern history, my understanding is that you did not change the U.S. attorney during an administration unless there was some evidence of misconduct or other really quite significant cause to do so.

And the expectation was, so long as that was absent, that you would serve out your full four years or eight years as U.S. attorney.

BLOCK: And if the Bush administration wanted to put in a prosecutor, say, who had worked for Karl Rove - as they seem to have done in Arkansas - is there anything that says that's not okay, you can't do that?

Ms. WHITE: Well, as a matter of authority and power, there's nothing that says that you cannot do that. As a matter, in my opinion, as a matter of sound policy and tradition, one has to be very, very careful about not injecting politics into the office of the U.S. attorney. I mean, U.S. attorneys are political appointees, but once in office, they have traditionally and are expected to carry out their duties - as they say - without fear or favor, and in an absolutely apolitical way.

So if a U.S. attorney who's performing well is replaced by someone who is perceived to be very politically active, it certainly creates serious appearance issues, and it disrupts the work of the office. I mean, anytime you change the U.S. attorney, there's a period of real disruption where the office loses traction.

BLOCK: There's another argument here, which is that the Bush administration may have wanted new U.S. attorneys to give them a couple of year on the job, burnish their credentials and essentially stoke the bench further down the line. Does that make sense to you?

Ms. WHITE: I think as a matter of policy, it doesn't make sense at all. I think it diminishes the importance of the office of U.S. attorney. I think it also ignores the price that a U.S. attorney's office is going to pay if a change that's not needed to be made is made in the U.S. attorney's position.

BLOCK: And when you heard about these firings, a number of them coming on the same day, what was your reaction?

Ms. WHITE: I thought it was quite remarkable, unprecedented, very troubling. I couldn't imagine that it was - in each case, you know - for any reason related to misconduct or other significant cause. I obviously know the facts and circumstances, so I, you know, couldn't comment on these specific instances. I still don't know that, but obviously, more has come out lately to suggest that in this vast majority of cases, these U.S. attorneys were replaced without cause. And I think that's a serious concern.

BLOCK: Well, Mary Jo White, thanks very much.

Ms. WHITE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Mary Jo White was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. She's now a lawyer in private practice.

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