The Justice Department has been something of a mess recently. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and many other department leaders were forced out after seven U.S. attorneys were fired in one day. Those dismissals raised accusations of political involvement in a department that's supposed to be free from partisan influences.
A group of former U.S. attorneys gathered in Miami this weekend to discuss those issues. At the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys meeting, people devoted to the Justice Department were scrutinizing the department's recent history and preparing for the next chapter.
John McKay was fired last year as the top prosecutor for the state of Washington. He said Gonzales could be in legal trouble very soon.
Lots of people have debated whether Gonzales committed perjury during his testimony before Congress. But McKay, who's prosecuted these kinds of cases, thinks there's a different glaring legal issue here.
"The outlines of an obstruction of justice case exist on these facts," McKay said. "And I think the attorney general's got serious problems in his dismissal of David Iglesias."
Iglesias was New Mexico's U.S. attorney. And McKay says that looking at the evidence surrounding that firing, he sees plenty of reason for Gonzales to worry.
"David Iglesias was fired in the middle of a specific corruption investigation after complaints were lodged to the attorney general, which he's admitted," McKay said.
The Justice Department's Inspector General appears to be wrapping up its investigation of these issues. Gonzales has hired a criminal defense lawyer, who didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Inspector General is also investigating whether Justice Department officials broke the law by hiring career lawyers based on their partisan ideology. The chief suspect there is the Justice Department's former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, who told a House committee she "crossed the line" in hiring.
On Saturday, McKay described one instance in Washington where a job applicant did not meet Goodling's political test.
"That person was deemed to have stuff on her resume that didn't look too good to Monica Goodling," McKay said. "And so she pushed back on that hire in a very offensive way to people in the office, because it was clear where she was coming from."
McKay said Republicans and Democrats in his office were disgusted. McKay is Republican like all of the fired U.S. attorneys.
The former prosecutors at the Miami conference looked to the future, as well as the past.
Former Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, who was among those fired, had a bit of advice for Michael Mukasey, who was sworn in Friday as attorney general. Cummings said it's nothing personal, but he thinks Mukasey should fire Brian Roehrkasse, the Justice Department's communications director.
"This guy, frankly, intentionally misled and deceived the press and the public on a number of occasions, and just told outright lies," Cummins said.
Cummins said that when you speak for the Justice Department, you have a higher ethical standard to speak the truth.
Roehrkasse responded with a statement today:
"I've strived to provide truth and accuracy in my role as a spokesperson for three non-political departments based on the best information available to me," he said.
Mukasey will also have to fill the many vacancies at the Justice Department. The head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Ken Melson, described Friday just how daunting that task is. With current or soon-to-be openings in the deputy's office, the Associate Attorney General's office, the heads of civil rights, environment, tax, justice programs, legal counsel, legal policy, legislative affairs, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The other day, I left the office and as I was leaving I commented to my secretary, 'If my boss calls, get his name,'" Melson joked to the conference attendees.