Former Justice Official Testifies About Firings Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Comey appears before the House Judiciary subcommittee Thursday. He's expected to describe what led to the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year.
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Former Justice Official Testifies About Firings

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Former Justice Official Testifies About Firings

Former Justice Official Testifies About Firings

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, in Lebanon, Sunnis and Shia get some American religion - basketball as a way of coming together in Beirut.

BRAND: First, it's back. The U.S. attorneys scandal, front and center, in Washington today. The House Judiciary Committee heard from a former U.S. attorney who was also a deputy of Alberto Gonzales's at the Justice Department. His name is James Comey. He's now in private practice.

Our legal analyst, Dahlia Lithwick, heard his testimony. She's here now with an update. Hi, Dahlia.

Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Legal Analyst, Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, why did the Judiciary Committee want to hear from James Comey today?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well he was the deputy attorney general until October of 2005. Now he's general counsel of Lockheed Martin. His testimony's important because presumably, at least until a year and a half ago, he supervised all these U.S. attorneys. And so the eight who were fired, if they were performing as poorly as the Justice Department now claims, the argument is Comey would have known something about it.

BRAND: And did he say that he did? What were the important things to come out of his testimony?

Ms. LITHWICK: Well, that would - the most important thing was that he knew nothing about it. I mean, first of all, I think that the overarching feeling -and you really got a sense of this - is that he's just grieving for the Justice Department. He talked about quote, "the great uncertainty and pain that pervades the department now." And the second thing I think he made clear is that he had no role whatsoever in this process of, you know, sorting and ranking and hiring and firing. Let's listen to him for a second.

Mr. JAMES COMEY (Former Deputy Attorney General): I didn't put together any list. I don't understand this code, frankly. And so if I could, I'd like to take a pass on that one.

Ms. LITHWICK: So there he is, sort of being a straight shooter, saying, I had no list. But he went even further and he sort of went bump, bump, bump, down the list of the fired U.S. attorneys. And of the eight who were fired, of seven certainly he only had glowing things to say. California's Carol Lam, he said, was not ineffective or subordinate, as has been claimed. Seattle's John McKay he said was very strong, quote, "one of the best ones." Same for Nevada's Daniel Bogden; same for New Mexico's David Iglesias.

And then when he got to Patrick Fitzgerald, here's what he had to say to the committee.

Representative LINDA SANCHEY (Democrat, California): It's been reported that Patrick Fitzgerald of Illinois was listed on that chart in the middle category as someone who had not distinguished himself positively or negatively. What is your reaction to that rating?

Mr. COMEY: I've never thought much of him. No, I'm just kidding. He's a very close friend of mine.

Rep. SANCHEY: I think he'll be shocked to hear that.

Mr. COMEY: He's a very close friend of mine. I think he is one of the finest federal prosecutors that there is, and maybe has ever been. So...

Rep. SANCHEY: So you would disagree with the assessment on that list that he haven't distinguished himself either positively or negatively?

Mr. COMEY: Yeah. That - although I've enjoyed teasing him about it, it would not be where I would put him on the list.

BRAND: So Dahlia, yeah, that is some light-hearted banter, but beneath that some serious, serious issues. Some other developments on the matter of U.S. attorney firings. Tell us about the Justice Department's investigation of one of its own - former Justice official Monica Goodling.

Ms. LITHWICK: Right, Madeleine. This is such an interesting new development in the scandal. You know, we talk about it happening sort of drip, drip, drip. This is a big drip. The Justice Department announced yesterday that they were going to launch an inquiry into Monica Goodling. We'll remember she was the Justice Department adviser, the White House liaison, who together with Alberto Gonzales's deputy, Kyle Sampson, were cooking up this list, apparently without any supervision at all.

Well, now the Justice Department is launching an inquiry into whether maybe Goodling improperly used the politics or the ideology of candidates as a litmus test in hiring prospective prosecutors. And that would be in violation of the law. It raises all sorts of big, big questions about the grant of immunity that she was supposed to be given in exchange for her testimony before the Judiciary Committee.

So it's a really interesting problem of - if she's in fact broken some laws, can this testimony go forward?

BRAND: Thank you, Dahlia.

Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure, Madeleine.

BRAND: That's's legal analyst, Dahlia Lithwick.

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