Ex-U.S. Attorneys Continue to Scrutinize Gonzales
JACKI LYDEN, host:
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. The National Association of Former U.S. attorneys has never before allowed a reporter to attend the conference. But this year, they made an exception for NPR's Ari Shapiro. He found people who are devoted to the Justice Department, scrutinizing its recent history and preparing for the next chapter.
ARI SHAPIRO: This crowd is still talking about the events of the last year. And to hear them describe it, they've got good reason.
John McKay was fired last year as the top prosecutor for the state of Washington. And he says former Attorney General Alberto 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.
Mr. JOHN McKAY (Former U.S. Attorney, Washington): The outlines of an obstruction of justice case exist on these facts. And I think the attorney general's got serious problems in his dismissal of David Iglesias.
SHAPIRO: Iglesias was New Mexico's U.S. attorney. And McKay says looking at the evidence surrounding that firing, he sees plenty of reason for Gonzales to worry.
Mr. McKAY: David Iglesias was fired in the middle of a specific corruption investigation after complaints were lodged to the attorney general, which he's admitted.
SHAPIRO: 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 our 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 the House committee she crossed the line in hiring.
This morning, John McKay described one instance in Washington where a job applicant did not meet Goodling's political test.
Mr. McKAY: And that person was deemed to have had stuff on her resume that didn't look too good to Monica Goodling. And so she pushed back on that hire and in a very, you know, offensive way to people in the office because it was pretty clear where she was coming from.
SHAPIRO: McKay said Republicans and Democrats in his office were disgusted. McKay is a Republican himself, like all of the fired U.S. attorneys. The former prosecutors at this conference look to the future as well as the past. Michael Mukasey was sworn in yesterday as attorney general.
Former Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, who is among those fired, had a bit of advice for Mukasey. He said it's nothing personal, but he thinks Mukasey should fire the Justice Department's communications director.
Mr. BUD CUMMINS (Former U.S. Attorney, Arkansas): This guy, frankly, intentionally misled and deceived the press and the public on a number of occasions, and just told outright lies.
SHAPIRO: Cummins said when you speak for the Justice Department, you have a higher ethical standard to speak the truth. The spokesman's name is Brian Roehrkasse, and he 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 Justice. The head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Kenneth Melson, described yesterday 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 council, legal policy, legislative affairs, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, Nelson told the conference attendees.
Mr. KENNETH MELSON (Director, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department): The other day, I left the office and as I was leaving I commented to my secretary, if my boss calls, get his name.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Miami.
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