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Here's the story of a man at the center of a scandal. He's the one man who can tell us what it was like to fire seven United States attorneys on the same day.
One year ago, Michael Battle was head of a Justice Department office. It oversaw prosecutors across the country. Which means that when the Bush administration decided to remove some U.S. attorneys, he had to call and tell them. The resulting uproar eventually caused Attorney General Alberto Gonzales his own job. But Michael Battle has never spoken publicly until now. He sat down with NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO: Michael Battle likes to joke that his commute hasn't changed much since he left the Justice Department last spring. He now works at a law firm on the other side of the street from his old employer. And he says he still looks across Pennsylvania Avenue with pride.
Mr. MICHAEL BATTLE (Former Director, Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department): I know there's some great work being done in there. I feel badly that some people look upon the department with a bit of disdain and I feel bad for the people there who have to deal with that. And I know that it hurts them.
SHAPIRO: Battle says even now, almost a year after he had to fire seven of his colleagues, the dismissals are rarely far from his mind.
Mr. BATTLE: You know, I still have lingering feelings about it. I mean, these, you know, these are people that I grew up with, so to speak. And at the pinnacle of my career, you know, I can't say that it was anything other than just distasteful.
SHAPIRO: See, before Michael Battle came to Washington to run the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, he was a U.S. attorney himself. He was the top prosecutor in Buffalo, New York during President Bush's first term. He handled one of the biggest terrorism cases right after 9/11 - the Lackawanna Six.
So, the U.S. attorneys that Battle was told to fire were, in many cases, his friends.
Mr. BATTLE: I didn't consider myself a former colleague, once a U.S. attorney always a U.S. attorney as far as I was concerned.
SHAPIRO: Battle says soon after he arrived at Justice in June of 2005, there were vague conversations about giving other people opportunities to serve as U.S. attorneys, but nothing specific.
Mr. BATTLE: At some point, I was asked whether or not there were any U.S. attorneys out there that maybe had some issues. And quite honestly, I wasn't able to identify anyone that did.
SHAPIRO: He didn't hear anything more about it until Thanksgiving weekend, 2006. Battle was coming back from visiting his family in Buffalo when he received a vague invitation to a meeting - 10 o'clock Monday morning, the attorney general's conference room.
MR. BATTLE: I couldn't find out what the meeting was about. I reached out to my secretary.
SHAPIRO: But she didn't know either. So Battle showed up to the meeting and all the big hitters were there: Alberto Gonzales, his deputy, Paul McNulty, legal council Monica Goodling, Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson - by the way, all those people have since resigned.
Mr. BATTLE: Kyle and I had gotten to be pretty good friends over the years, I think. We'd played some basketball together. And I, you know, I liked him and he liked me, and he sort of looked at me and his joking me and said, well, everybody here, I think, knows the purpose of the meeting except Battle. And he kind of chuckled and I laughed, you know, thinking to myself, oh, this is not about me. I'm not going to worry about it.
SHAPIRO: Then Kyle Sampson started passing around a documents. It was a list of names, and Battle knew right away that this was a list of people who would be asked to resign.
Mr. BATTLE: By the time we left the room, it was very clear that I was going to be the one to make those calls.
SHAPIRO: The meeting was all about how the firing should work not whether these people should be fired at all. Battle didn't expect to be consulted on the list, but Deputy Attorney General McNulty did.
Mr. BATTLE: I think Paul McNulty was a little bit surprised at, I think, Dan Bogden from Las Vegas was on the list and asked me after the meeting had I heard anything about, you know, Dan and I was doing, I said that I had not. And we were both a little bit surprised.
SHAPIRO: In fact, Battle says he didn't know what any of the U.S. attorneys had done that they deserved to be fired.
Mr. BATTLE: These were people that I know that had served, and at least, as far as I was concerned, with some level of distinction. And so if they were being asked to leave, if it was for a bad reason that would surprise me, but maybe they had said that they want to move on. I just didn't really know.
SHAPIRO: Over the months, evidence emerged that suggests some prosecutors were fired because they weren't partisan enough in their law enforcement decisions. At the time, Battle had no reason to believe that anything nefarious was going on. Battle says he didn't have any inside information about why the U.S. attorneys were being dismissed. He still doesn't. He was just the messenger.
Mr. BATTLE: When I began to make the first call, I also developed a pretty bad headache. And it lasted a whole day and the next day too.
SHAPIRO: Do you remember what you said to the U.S. attorneys when you called them?
Mr. BATTLE: I don't know that I'll ever forget it. You know, the phone calls were really greeted with, hey, Mike, how are you doing? I was good friend with all these people and they were always glad to hear from me and I was always glad to call them for whatever reason.
SHAPIRO: That made, what Battle said, next much more difficult.
Mr. BATTLE: Listen, I've been asked to call you and advise you that you're being asked to submit your resignation as U.S. attorney at the close of business by session(ph) (unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: He says the reactions were different across the board.
Mr. BATTLE: But I'm sure in- on all cases it was a surprise and shock. Then what ensued from there was a response anywhere from, could you repeat yourself or are you sure? Is there anyone I can call? Things of that nature. And then that's when it got to be uncomfortable.
SHAPIRO: He told them he couldn't answer their questions but offered to help in any way he could. He'd been instructed to say as little as possible.
In the last couple of months Battle has reached out to the people he had to fire and he says he takes pride in the fact that they don't blame him.
Mr. PAUL CHARLTON (Former U.S. Attorney, Arizona): Still consider Mike to be a friend of mine.
SHAPIRO: Paul Charlton was Arizona's U.S. attorney until Battle asked him to resign.
Mr. CHARLTON: My understanding is that Mike was given orders, and he followed those orders. Time that those orders were given to Mike was a train wreck and that there wasn't much he could do to stop it. So, I don't know that Mike needs forgiving because I don't know that he did much wrong, to the extent that he did (unintelligible).
SHAPIRO: Battle says he realized that things were about to get ugly when Deputy Attorney General McNulty testified on Capitol Hill that the U.S. attorneys were all fired for performance-related reasons.
Mr. BATTLE: I knew just from discussions with them that they probably at that point had resumes out, they were going through interviews and we're putting their best foot forward. And so, if I were one of them, I would have reacted that way too.
SHAPIRO: As the tower started crumbling and the resignations mounted, new allegations came out. The attorney general's former legal counsel, Monica Goodling, told Congress she crossed the line by hiring career attorneys based on partisan considerations. Battle doesn't want to talk about that in detail because of ongoing investigations but he will describe Goodling this way.
Mr. BATTLE: She thought of politics probably 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
SHAPIRO: As the public leaves the U.S. attorney firings in the past, there is one thing Battle wants to clear up: he left the Justice Department as the dismissals were starting to catch the public's attention, and ever since, he's been described as one of the casualties of the scandal.
Mr. BATTLE: That's absolutely not the truth.
SHAPIRO: Battle says he started looking for a job six months earlier. A member of Congress who served as a job reference for Battle independently confirmed that. So his departure had nothing to do with the U.S. attorney firings. It was just good timing, or bad timing depending on how you look at it.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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