E-Mails Detail Aftermath of U.S. Attorney Firings

Congressional investigators are sifting through thousands of newly released e-mails linked to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The Justice Department released some 3,000 pages of material Monday night.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm John Ydstie, in for Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, some veterans who were injured in Iraq are rehabbing in the great outdoors.

YDSTIE: But first, the Senate voted today to take away the attorney general's authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. It's just one front in the fast-moving U.S. attorney scandal.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has the latest.

ARI SHAPIRO: This morning, amid reports that the White House is looking for a new attorney general, President Bush called his beleaguered friend Alberto Gonzales. It's been a week since they last spoke. And in the interim the president's spokesman has delivered tepid endorsements of Gonzales.

According to a White House official, the president and the attorney general had a good conversation about the status of the U.S. attorney issue. The president also reaffirmed his strong backing and support for the attorney general. At the same time, bleary-eyed Congressional investigators continued to pore through thousands of pages of Justice Department documents.

In one, U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara of Michigan pleaded with the deputy attorney general to say the real reason for her dismissal. She wrote in an e-mail: politics may not be a pleasant reason, but the truth is compelling.

In another document, Kyle Samson, who resigned last week as the attorney general's chief of staff, wrote that he thought it would be a bad idea for the outgoing U.S. attorney from Arkansas to testify on Capitol Hill. Samson wrote: how would he answer, did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Did Griffin - the replacement U.S. attorney - ever talk about being attorney general appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation?

There is little from the attorney general himself in these documents. A committee that was scheduled to hear from Gonzales tomorrow postponed that hearing.

Later today, the White House is expected to announce whether it will cooperate with Congressional demands for documents and testimony. If not, committees in both the House and Senate are prepared to vote this week on subpoenas for top White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

BRAND: One of the fired U.S. attorneys at the center of this controversy is Carol Lam of San Diego. She's a prosecutor who sent former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham to prison for taking bribes. The Justice Department says that corruption case is not the reason for Lam's dismissal.

Joining us now from San Diego is NPR's Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Scott, one reason the Lam case has attracted so much attention is an e-mail from the attorney general's chief of staff - who has since resigned - in which he mentions, quote, "the real problem we have with Carol Lam." And I guess the reason why this has attracted too much attention is the e-mail came last May, exactly the time when Lam notified her superiors at the Justice Department that an investigation into Congressman Cunningham was going forward.

HORSLEY: That's right, and this is something that Senator Dianne Feinstein has seized upon to suggest that Carol Lam's pursuit of corruption was at the root of her firing. The Justice Department hotly contests that and, in fact, in a press release accompanying the documents that came out yesterday, they say no U.S. attorney was fired in retaliation for pursuing public corruption. And, in fact, many of the documents are there to bolster the case the Justice Department's been making, quietly until now, that Lam was let go, not because she went after Duke Cunningham, but because she didn't prosecute enough immigration and gun cases.

We see some traffic with an angry San Diego Congressman, Darrell Issa, about what he called the catch-and-release program for illegal immigrants. And we also see an e-mail from some of Lam's bosses at the Justice Department from last summer, grousing that she, quote, "ignored national priorities and obvious local needs."

BRAND: Scott, were there other complaints about Lam?

HORSLEY: Yes, we also see notes from a Congressional briefing which says she spent too much time personally trying cases, rather than running the big, complex San Diego U.S. attorney's office. We know, for example that Lam personally tried a Medicare fraud case against a San Diego hospital. The trial went on for months, and it ended in a mistrial. Her bosses were evidently unhappy about that.

What's interesting, we know from e-mails released last week that Lam was on the hit list to be dismissed, at least as far back as March 2005. And that's important because that's three months before the Duke Cunningham case even started. I should say I've not been able to review all 3,000 e-mails yet, but of the ones I've seen so far, most of them date after that March 2005 hit list was drawn up.

BRAND: Were her days numbered, then, as far back as March 2005?

HORSLEY: Well, it would seem so, and you could sort of break the e-mails that were released last night into three groups. There was deliberation and planning about this scheme to fire the U.S. attorneys. There was e-mail traffic in the immediate aftermath of the firing as U.S. attorneys are asking behind the scenes, what happened - in some cases, asking for more time or help in finding new jobs.

And then there is the e-mail traffic concerning the explanation of the firing of the U.S. attorneys once it become public. What we don't see very much in all of these 3,000 pages of documents - at least in Lam's case - is the deliberation over whether or not she should even be on the hit list. We don't see, sort of, a history of how she landed on that hit list in the first place.

BRAND: And what has she said? She hasn't really talked to reporters, has she?

HORSLEY: No, she's kept very quiet except when called to testify before Congress. One thing that's interesting is how much of a lid all of these U.S. attorneys kept on the news between the time they were fired - most of them on December 7th - and when it became public. Some of them dutifully sent in their resignation letters and issued press releases. Others, including Lam, sort of kept their head down, kept working, expressed dismay at being fired and tried to get extensions so they could stay on in office.

At one point, we see an e-mail from former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Arkansas warning his fellow firees(ph) that if they go quietly, they can keep their reputations intact, but he'd been told by his Justice Department bosses, if they made a fuss, the gloves were coming off. And I think we've now reached that point.

BRAND: Yes, and he has spoken on this program quite forcefully about his firing. All right, that's NPR's Scott Horsley reporting from San Diego. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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

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

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

itoggle 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."

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