How Prosecutor Lam's Case Was Handled Among the eight fired U.S. attorneys is Carol Lam of San Diego. Her office brought the corruption case that sent Rep. Duke Cunningham, a California Republican, to prison. Related documents shed light on how the Justice Department handled its "problems" with Lam.

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How Prosecutor Lam's Case Was Handled

How Prosecutor Lam's Case Was Handled

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Among the eight fired U.S. attorneys is Carol Lam of San Diego. Her office brought the corruption case that sent Rep. Duke Cunningham, a California Republican, to prison. Related documents shed light on how the Justice Department handled its "problems" with Lam.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

One of the U.S. attorneys whose firing generated so much heat is Carol Lam of San Diego. Lam is best known for pressing corruption charges against Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham. This past week, California Senator Diane Feinstein said she believes that case contributed to Lam's downfall.

But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, it's not the whole story.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Carol Lam was on a short list of U.S. attorneys to be fired at least three months before the Duke Cunningham investigation even started. An e-mail from the attorney general's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, recommended firing Lam in March of 2005. At that point, Congressman Cunningham was still living happily aboard his houseboat, the Dukester, which a defense contractor had bought for him. The front-page newspaper expose that would begin his downfall was still 14 weeks away.

So if it wasn't the Cunningham case that originally put Lam in the crosshairs, what was it? Sampson's e-mail suggested Lam and others were, quote, "weak U.S. attorneys who've been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc."

The Border Patrol Union complained that Lam wasn't prosecuting enough immigration cases. Union president T.J. Bonner says Lam set the bar so high it was difficult to go after immigrant smugglers in court.

Mr. T.J. BONNER (President, Border Patrol Union): For example, you had to have a minimum of 12 people and a load of illegal aliens in order to secure a prosecution. And the smugglers knew that, so they would routinely come in just under that.

HORSLEY: Another e-mail from the Justice Department's chief of staff last May asked whether anyone had ever, quote, "called Carol Lam and woodshedded her about immigration enforcement." But a subsequent letter from the Justice Department appears to defend Lam's approach of pursuing only the worst immigration offenders who would net the longest sentences. Lam herself declined to comment for this story. Even T.J. Bonner doesn't believe immigration was the real cause of her firing.

Mr. BONNER: This administration could not be any less sincere about enforcing immigration laws. They talk a good game, but they are not sincere at all.

HORSLEY: Others point to a case that Lam handled personally. Twice her office prosecuted a San Diego hospital for Medicare fraud. Both trials lasted for months, and both ended in hung juries. Lam, who specialized in healthcare crime, handled the second trial herself. Dr. Ted Mazer, who heads the San Diego County Medical Society, says while Medicare fraud is a concern, Lam's long hours in the courtroom may have been a distraction.

Dr. TED MAZER (San Diego County Medical Society): I guess the issue in retrospect over her firing is whether she spent too much time doing that kind of prosecution versus some of the other tasks that the office may be apt to handle and people may have wanted them to handle in immigration.

HORSLEY: The hospital case came to a head last May, around the time the Justice Department's Kyle Sampson wrote another email asking a deputy in the White House Counsel's office to discuss quote, "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." That same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam's counterpart in L.A. was probing the powerful Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis. The next day, FBI agents searched the home and office of a high-ranking CIA official with ties to an alleged Cunningham co-conspirator. Cunningham himself was sentenced to more than eight years in prison and became the poster boy for what Democrats called a Republican culture of corruption. There's no evidence the Justice Department ever put pressure on San Diego prosecutors to go easy on Cunningham or other lawmakers. Even after Lam was given her walking papers in December, a San Diego grand jury continued to gather evidence from congressional committees. Two days before she left office last month, Lam announced a follow-up indictment of an alleged Cunningham co-conspirator and that former CIA official, Kyle Foggo. Joining Lam in the announcement was Special Agent Ken Hines of the IRS.

Mr. KEN HINES (IRS): On a personal note, it's been a privilege and honor to stand shoulder and shoulder with Carol Lam during my tenure here in San Diego. She will be missed as a prosecutor, and she will be clearly missed as a U.S. attorney. I thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Flowers from well-wishers were already piling up in Lam's office. She suggested the case against corruption would not end with her departure.

Ms. CAROL LAM (Former U.S. Attorney): I'm neither a soothsayer nor a fortune teller, but I expect the Department of Justice will conduct itself as the department always has and as professionally and in the public's interest.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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Timeline: The Firing of U.S. Attorney Carol Lam

Carol Lam was a U.S. Attorney in San Diego, Calif. She prosecuted former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now in federal prison for accepting bribes. The Justice Department has said that Lam was let go because she wasn't aggressive enough in prosecuting immigration and gun cases. But a 2005 performance review cited her as "an effective manager and respected leader."

Below is a timeline of the events leading up to Lam's dismissal.

February 17, 2005: Mistrial declared in first Medicare fraud trial against San Diego's Alvarado Hospital, after jury fails to reach a verdict. U.S. Attorney Carol Lam suggests a retrial is likely.

March 2, 2005: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson emails White House Counsel Harriet Miers, recommending removal of Carol Lam and several others as "weak U.S. Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc."

June 12, 2005: Front-page story in The San Diego Union Tribune reveals that a defense contractor paid an inflated price for Rep. Duke Cunningham's San Diego-area house. Within days, U.S. Attorney Carol Lam launches an investigation.

November 28, 2005: Cunningham pleads guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. He resigns his congressional seat.

March 3, 2006: Cunningham is sentenced to eight years, four months in prison.

April 4, 2006: Mistrial declared in second Medicare fraud trial against San Diego's Alvarado Hospital, after jury fails to reach a verdict. U.S. Attorney Carol Lam had personally tried the case.

Early May, 2006: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services threatens to cut Medicare and Medicaid funds to San Diego's Alvarado Hospital.

May 11, 2006: Front-page story in the Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles is probing ties between House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and lobbyist Bill Lowery, whose clients include alleged Cunningham co-conspirator Brent Wilkes.

May 11, 2006: General Alberto Gonzales' Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson e-mails a deputy in the White House Counsel's office asking to discuss, "The real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires."

May 12, 2006: FBI agents search the home and office of former CIA Executive Director Kyle Foggo, best friend of alleged Cunningham co-conspirator Brent Wilkes.

May 17, 2006: Alvarado Hospital's parent company, Tenet Healthcare, agrees to sell or close the hospital and pay $21 million to settle criminal and civil charges. The hospital is later sold.

May 31, 2006: Attorney General's Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson e-mails Associate Attorney General Bill Mercer asking, "Has ODAG ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement? Has anyone?"

June 15, 2006: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) writes to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seeking information about immigration enforcement under U.S. Attorney Carol Lam.

August 23, 2006:The Justice Department responds to Feinstein's June 15 inquiry, defending the philosophy of Lam's office, which "focuses on deterrence by directing its resources and efforts against the worst immigration offenders and by bringing felony cases against such defendants that will result in longer sentences."

December 4, 2006: Deputy White House Counsel William K. Kelley e-mails Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, authorizing the dismissal of seven U.S. Attorneys. "We're a go for the US Attny plan. WH leg, political, and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes."

December 7, 2006: The Justice Department fires Carol Lam and six other U.S. attorneys.

December 21-22, 2006: House Committees on Intelligence, Armed Services and Appropriations disclose that they have been subpoenaed by a San Diego grand jury, continuing the probe of defense contracting that began with Rep. Cunningham.

February 13, 2007: Former CIA Executive Director Kyle Foggo and defense contractor Brent Wilkes are indicted on corruption charges. Both plead "not guilty" the following day.

February 15, 2007: Carol Lam resigns as U.S. Attorney for San Diego.