E-Mails Show Justice Dept. in Damage-Control Mode

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. i

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Jan. 18, 2007. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill Jan. 18, 2007.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Read More Documents

Read documents released by the Department of Justice to the House Judiciary Committee.

A new collection of Justice Department documents landed with a thud on Capitol Hill Monday night, providing new insight into the growing furor over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.

Heralding the release of 3,000 pages of material, the Justice Department called the action "virtually unprecedented."

Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the goal is to show Congress and the American people that "the department did not remove the U.S. attorneys for improper reasons, such as to prevent or retaliate for a particular prosecution in a public corruption matter."

Whether the Justice Department succeeds at making its case could determine whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales holds onto his job amid calls for his resignation.

The documents released Monday show eight U.S. attorneys trying to make sense of their dismissals, as the Justice Department hunkers down to weather the fallout — and sometimes mocks the people who were fired.

On Feb. 1, 2007, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, Margaret Chiara, wrote to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty:

Everyone who knows about my required resignation is astonished that I am being asked to leave. Now that it has been widely reported that departing U.S. Attorneys have either failed to meet performance expectations or that they acted independently rather than follow Justice Department directives, the situation is so much worse. You know that I am in neither category. This makes me so sad. Why have I been asked to resign? The real reason, especially if true, would be a lot easier to live with. Margaret.

At the end of February, Scolinos e-mailed a group of her colleagues to ask how to handle the announcement of Chiara's departure:

I believe this will generate another round of rough stories as expected. Her press release paints a pretty darn good record and emphasizes her many "firsts" as a woman, which the media will no doubt play up.

A month later, Chiara again wrote the deputy attorney general with a plea:

Paul: I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal ... politics may not be a pleasant reason, but the truth is compelling. Know that I am considered a personification of ethics and productivity ... the notoriety of being one of the eight fired U.S. attorneys coupled with my age being constantly cited in the press is proving to be a formidable obstacle in seeking employment.

In the case of a different U.S. attorney, "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas, a chain of e-mail showed miscommunication and anger among the Justice Departrment's leaders over the rationale for the man's dismissal.

After Deputy Attorney General McNulty told Congress that Cummins was asked to step down so a political ally could take his place, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote:

The Attorney General is extremely upset with the stories on the U.S. attorneys this morning ... he also thought some of the deputy attorney general's statements were inaccurate ... from a straight news perspective, we just want the stories to die...

In a statement Monday night, Roehrkasse said the attorney general was upset because he believed Cummins was fired because of performance issues.

Cummins wrote a letter to the Justice Department saying, "I have no hard feelings."

In e-mail, he discusses writing a letter in support of his replacement, Tim Griffin, but adds: "As predicted, my wife is strongly opposed to me writing on Tim's behalf, so I still have some work to do there."

He told the Justice Department that he had been asked to testify before Congress, saying "I'm completely neutral to testifying."

Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week as the attorney general's chief of staff, wrote in an earlier e-mail that he thought it would be a bad idea for Cummins to testify, asking how he would answer the following questions:

Did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Did Griffin [Cummins' replacement] ever talk about being attorney general-appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation?

A month later, Sampson wrote to the Justice Department spokespeople with some good news for them. That e-mail says that according to the top lawyer to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the U.S. attorneys issue "has basically run its course."

"They need to get a little more information from us," Sampson predicted. "But that will be it."

Timeline: Behind the Firing of Eight U.S. Attorneys

The E-Mail Trail

In response to congressional inquiries, the Department of Justice released a series of internal communications — including e-mails with White House staff — that preceded the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at a March 13 news conference.

At a March 13 news conference, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admits that "mistakes were made" in the Justice Department's handling of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In Depth

The Bush administration fired seven U.S. attorneys on a single day last December. After Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress in January, they began hearings into whether those dismissals — as well as an earlier one, in June 2006 — were politically motivated. Political furor has ensued. Follow events so far:

Late December 2004: White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department official Kyle Sampson discuss replacing some or all of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys.

Jan. 9, 2005: Sampson e-mails Deputy White House Counsel David Leitch to suggest dismissing 15 percent to 20 percent of all U.S. attorneys, including those who are not "loyal Bushies." Sampson writes, "If Karl [Rove, the president's political adviser] thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I."

February 2005: Harriet Miers, who has replaced Gonzales as White House counsel, suggests that all 93 U.S. attorneys be replaced.

Feb. 14, 2005: Gonzales is sworn in as attorney general of the United States.

March 2, 2005: Sampson e-mails Miers a chart, categorizing U.S. attorneys into one of three groups based on whether they have "produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General."

Sept. 23, 2005: Sampson becomes chief of staff to the attorney general

Jan. 9, 2006: Sampson e-mails Miers to suggest replacing "a limited number of U.S. Attorneys."

March 9, 2006: President Bush signs the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization into law. One provision allows the attorney general to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation.

May 11, 2006: Sampson e-mails White House official William Kelley: "Please call me at your convenience to discuss ... the real problem we have right now with [San Diego U.S. Attorney] Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day after her 4-year term expires."

The Los Angeles Times reports that Lam's corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham has expanded to include another Republican congressman from California, Jerry Lewis.

June 2006: The Justice Department dismisses H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Arkansas. His replacement, J. Timothy Griffin, is a former aide to Karl Rove.

Sept. 13, 2006: Sampson writes an e-mail to Miers, urging the administration to circumvent Congress in appointing replacement U.S. attorneys: "I strongly recommend that, as a matter of administration policy, we utilize the new statutory provisions that authorize the AG [attorney general] to make USA [U.S. attorney] appointments ... we can give far less deference to home-state Senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House."

Fall 2006: President Bush meets with Gonzales and relays general complaints about U.S. attorneys' performance, without naming specific prosecutors.

October 2006: Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) each call U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to ask about a federal corruption probe into some New Mexico Democrats.

The Justice Department adds Iglesias to a list of U.S. attorneys slated for dismissal.

Nov. 15, 2006: Sampson e-mails Miers, copying Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty on the message. Sampson writes, "I am concerned that to execute this plan [firing seven U.S. attorneys simultaneously] properly, we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result. If we start caving to complaining U.S. attorneys or Senators, then we shouldn't do it — it'll be more trouble than it's worth."

Nov. 27, 2006: Gonzales attends an hourlong meeting to discuss the upcoming U.S. attorney dismissals.

Dec. 2, 2006: Sampson e-mails Justice official Michael Elston: "Still waiting for green light from White House [to fire U.S. attorneys]."

Dec. 7, 2006: The Justice Department dismisses seven U.S. attorneys: Daniel Bogden of Nevada, Paul Charlton of Arizona, Margaret Chiara of Michigan, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Carol Lam of San Diego, John McKay of Seattle, and Kevin Ryan of San Francisco.

Jan. 11, 2007: Three senators propose legislation to restore Senate authority to oversee U.S. attorney appointments.

Jan. 18, 2007: Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "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." (Hear Gonzales' testimony.)

Feb. 6, 2007: McNulty testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "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." (Hear NcNulty's testimony.)

Feb. 23, 2007: Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling sends several members of Congress a letter saying, in part, "The [Justice] Department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin."

March 6, 2007: Former U.S. attorneys testify before Congress. Some say they believe they were fired for political reasons.

March 9, 2007: Gonzales says he will not fight congressional proposals to undo the PATRIOT Act provision that gave him more authority to appoint replacement U.S. attorneys.

March 12, 2007: Justice Department officials say Sampson did not tell people at the agency about the extent of his communications with the White House. Sampson resigns as the attorney general's chief of staff.

March 13, 2007: The Justice Department sends documents to Capitol Hill detailing the correspondence between White House and Justice Department officials over the U.S. attorneys issue. Gonzales insists that he will not resign amid calls for his ouster. He cancels travel plans and holds a news conference to say, "Mistakes were made." He adds, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood." (Hear Gonzales apologize.)

March 14, 2007: President Bush says at a news conference in Mexico, "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales." Mr. Bush says the firings were mishandled, and he's not happy about it. He says, "Al was right: Mistakes were made. And he's going to go up to Capitol Hill to correct them."

March 15, 2007: The Senate Judiciary Committee grants Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) authority to subpoena five Justice Department officials and six fired U.S. attorneys.

March 16, 2007: Sampson releases a statement through his lawyer saying that he did not resign because he failed to tell Justice officials the extent of his communications with the White House. Instead, he says, he resigned because he did not "organize a more effective political response" to the dismissals.

March 19, 2007: The Justice Department sends Congress 3,000 pages of documents related to the U.S. attorney dismissals.

March 20, 2007: White House counsel Fred Fielding offers to make White House officials available to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for private interviews without an oath or transcript. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy responds, "I don't accept his offer."

March 26, 2007: The Justice Department's White House liaison and senior counselor to Gonzales, Monica Goodling, says she will invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to respond to questions from Congress about the U.S. attorney dismissals.

March 28, 2007: The Justice Department says its Feb. 23, 2007, letter to Congress denying Rove's involvement in the U.S. attorney dismissals is "contradicted by Department documents."

March 29, 2007: Sampson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In response to questions about several of the attorney general's statements about the U.S. attorney dismissals, Sampson says, "I don't think it's entirely accurate."

April 6, 2007: Goodling resigns from the Justice Department.

April 10, 2007: The House Judiciary Committee subpoenas Justice Department documents related to the U.S. attorney dismissals.

Gonzales appoints Kevin O'Connor, U.S. attorney for Connecticut, as his chief of staff.



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