Report: U.S. Attorneys Sacked For Partisan Reasons

Justice Department report concludes that political partisan considerations played a part in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, but stops short of recommending criminal charges against top officials.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, Zen and the art of punk. Some punk rockers are turning to Buddhism for a little peace and quiet. But first, a major development today in the ongoing story of the fired U.S. attorneys. You may remember nine of them were fired by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. A lot of people said the firings were for political reasons. Well, a report out today from the Justice Department says crimes may have been committed. And now, Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a prosecutor to investigate further. Joining me now is NPR Justice Department correspondent Ari Shapiro. And Ari, quickly recap for us. Again, the nine prosecutors, they were let go for a variety of reasons, right?

ARI SHAPIRO: Right. There were seven let go all in one day. Two released - rather, dismissed before that. And as this unfolded, we had just a patchwork quilt of different reasons. You know, people were claiming this was performance-related, it was so that other people would have a chance to serve. And the question was, were people really being fired because they were not aggressive enough about prosecuting Democrats? Or they were too aggressive about prosecuting Republicans? And this report today comes to the conclusion that there is substantial evidence to indicate that people were fired for partisan political reasons. The problem is, not everybody would cooperate with this investigation. Members of Congress, people in the White House in some cases, refused to talk to investigators and that's why, as you mentioned, Attorney General Michael Mukasey is now appointing a special prosecutor to continue this investigation.

BRAND: So tell us, this is a lengthy report. What are the headlines?

SHAPIRO: Well, the sort of biggest trouble spot is the firing of David Iglesias, who was the prosecutor in New Mexico. And the senator from New Mexico, Pete Domenici, Republican, had complained that Iglesias was not bringing voter fraud cases against Democratic activists just before the election. And there are real fingerprints on this report suggesting that Iglesias may have been fired because he would not indict those Democrats and that's potentially illegal. But Domenici would not cooperate with this investigation until the report stopped just short of saying that any crime was in fact committed. When you look at the big picture on this report, you get an image of the Justice Department as a place where there were frankly no adults at all.

I mean, there's just stunning criticism in here of Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, his deputy Paul McNulty, his chief of staff Kyle Sampson. Nobody emerges from this unscathed. Let me just review one quote here, Madeleine. It says we believe department leaders abdicated their responsibility to ensure the prosecutorial decisions would be based on the law, the evidence and department policy rather than political pressure related to the handling of specific cases. And Madeleine, this goes right to the heart of what the Justice Department is all about. Once people start to believe that federal prosecutors are bringing charges not based on the law and the evidence, but rather on political partisan considerations, then the reputation and the standing of the Justice Department across the country just starts to erode. And that's really what we saw over last year with more than dozen top officials leaving as this crisis unfolded.

BRAND: So Ari, if the report says that Gonzales - former attorney Alberto Gonzales abdicated his responsibility and wasn't really paying attention, who was paying attention and who did order that firings according to this report of the...

SHAPIRO: Well, the White House was involved. But of course, because White House officials would not cooperate in this, we don't know exactly how involved they were. I mean, you know, there are these titles pinned to people involved in the process where Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff, described himself as The Aggregator. He's the one who maintained the list of people who were to be fired. Gonzales described himself as The Delegator, the one who gave responsibility to Sampson and others. But when you try to pin down in each of these U.S attorneys, who was responsible for deciding that they were fired? In this report you've got basically 390 pages of everyone pointing fingers at everybody else.

You know, it's - this question of what role the White House played is really interesting. There's kind of bait and switch here where you have the White House Counsel's office, telling people on the White House 'we want you to cooperate with this investigation.' But then, the White House Counsel's office created an internal time line of the U.S attorney firings just so that they could, you know, understand what happened. They shared that time line with one part of the Justice Department and when the inspector general's office doing this investigation asked for the time line, the same White House Counsel's office that said we advise everybody to cooperate with this investigation, said no, we're not going to share the time line with you. So there are still big questions remaining here.

BRAND: OK and these questions will be presumably be followed up by this Nora Dannehy, who's the special prosecutor from Connecticut. What do we know about her? Very quickly.

SHAPIRO: She's been working for the department since 1991. She was the first woman to run the Connecticut U.S Attorney's office and she's got her work cut out for her.

BRAND: She certainly does. Thank you very much. NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: And there's more coming up on Day to Day from NPR news.

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Justice Probe: Partisan Politics Had Role In Firings

A long-awaited report from the Justice Department released Monday concludes that political partisan considerations played a part in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 but stops short of recommending criminal charges against top officials.

The dismissals of the lawyers led to the resignations of key officials at the Justice Department, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The investigation found "significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor" in the removal of several U.S. attorneys and points a finger at Gonzales for failing to supervise the U.S. attorney selection and removal process.

However, because investigators were unable to fully develop the facts of the case — partly bcause of the White House failure to provide internal documents — the report recommends further inquiry to determine whether any criminal offense was committed. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has followed the report's suggestion and appointed a prosecutor — Nora Dannehy — to continue the investigation.

The Justice Department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility have been conducting the investigation for more than a year, holding hundreds of hours of interviews and examining tens of thousands of pages of documents. The result is a 392-page report complete with timelines and other visual aids.

In a statement, Mukasey said the report "makes plain that, at a minimum, the process by which nine U.S. Attorneys were removed in 2006 was haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional, and that the way in which the Justice Department handled those removals and the resulting public controversy was profoundly lacking."

Mukasey also said he hoped the report takes steps to restore the reputations of the affected U.S. attorneys. "They did not deserve the treatment they received," Mukasey says.

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