Friday, May 04, 2007

Former Gonzales aide praises fired prosecutors
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former deputy on Thursday praised most of the federal prosecutors Gonzales fired last year in a Justice Department shake-up that is now under congressional investigation.

In testimony before Congress, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey described five of the eight U.S. attorneys ousted by Gonzales using phrases like "one of the best," "one of my favorites" and "very able." He characterized just one as a "weak performer."

The administration contends the dismissal of eight of the country's 93 U.S. attorneys was justified, but mishandled. Congressional investigators are trying to determine if the sackings were politically motivated.

The Justice Department has offered shifting explanations of the firings, initially saying they were performance-related but later pointing to policy differences. Recently released internal documents showed loyalty to Bush was also a factor.

Comey told a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee he was unaware of the dismissal program, which originated at the White House shortly after President George W. Bush was re-elected in November 2004.

"I was not aware that there was any kind of process going on," said Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, when he left for a job in the private sector.

One of the U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummins, was ousted in Arkansas to make room for Tim Griffin, a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove.

"You're a good man and have handled this maelstrom with great dignity," Comey wrote in March in an e-mail to Cummins that was released by the subcommittee. "Watching it causes me great pain," Comey added.

Bush rejected bipartisan calls to fire Gonzales after the attorney general made a contentious appearance last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales is to appear next week before the House Judiciary Committee, where he will face more tough questions from lawmakers who have charged he has undermined confidence in the Justice Department.

Under questioning, Comey praised five of the fired prosecutors -- David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, Paul Charlton of Arizona, Carol Lam of San Diego and John McKay of Washington state. He called just one, Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, a "weak performer."