Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Prosecutor fired so ex-Rove aide could get his job

Prosecutor fired so ex-Rove aide could get his job
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department acknowledged Tuesday that it fired the U.S. government's chief prosecutor in Little Rock for no reason except to replace him with a lawyer who had been an aide to Karl Rove, the Bush administration's chief political strategist.

However, in an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty rejected criticism that the forced resignations of Bud Cummins and six other U.S. attorneys last year were politically inspired, or amounted to retaliation for the attorneys' involvement in controversial investigations and prosecutions.

McNulty's testimony before the panel, which is investigating the firings of the prosecutors, was part of an exchange with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Schumer said the White House's appointment process for prosecutors was "corrupted with political, rather than prudent, considerations."

"What happened here doesn't sound like business as usual; it appears more reminiscent of a different sort of Saturday night massacre," Schumer said, referring to Watergate-era firings at Justice that were ordered by President Nixon.

"When I hear you talk about a politicization of the (Justice) Department, it is like a knife in my back," McNulty responded.

Schumer and other committee members have questioned the department's action, suggesting the administration was taking advantage of a section of the USA Patriot Act that allows the appointment of interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite periods. The process, Schumer and other critics in Congress have said, could allow federal prosecutors to be appointed without having to face confirmation by the Senate.

McNulty said the administration has no plan to circumvent the confirmation process and will send the Senate nominations for permanent replacements for the prosecutors. He said the six prosecutors dismissed besides Cummins — including San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who oversaw the corruption prosecution of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif. — were let go for performance-related reasons.

Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on Cummins and Lam.

McNulty acknowledged that Cummins had had a successful tenure in Arkansas and that he was asked to step aside last year to allow former White House aide Tim Griffin to take the job.

McNulty said that aside from his political work, Griffin had more prosecutorial experience than Cummins did when he first took the Little Rock job five years ago. The deputy attorney general said Griffin's experience included a stint in Iraq as a military prosecutor.

Before his call to active duty in 2005, Griffin was an aide to Rove at the White House. Griffin's résumé says he "organized and coordinated support for the president's agenda, including the nomination of Judge John Roberts" to be U.S. chief justice.

In Lam's case, McNulty said, the Justice Department considered the political impact of removing her in light of her involvement in the prosecution of Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years in federal prison last year after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes.

McNulty declined to publicly detail the reasons for her dismissal. But Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., cited letters to the Justice Department and Lam from members of Congress who complained about Lam's alleged inattention to prosecuting smugglers of illegal immigrants.