Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bush pick for key Justice Department job withdraws

Bush pick for key Justice Department job withdraws
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's nominee for the third-ranking U.S. Justice Department post withdrew on Friday, becoming the department's latest casualty amid congressional scrutiny of the firings of federal prosecutors.

The move by William Mercer, selected by Bush for the post of associate attorney general, came just days before a scheduled Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday on his nomination. Mercer had been serving in the job on an acting basis since last September while also holding the job of U.S. attorney in Montana, a post he will retain.

Mercer becomes the sixth Justice Department official to step aside since March as the Democratic-led Congress investigates the department's firing of nine U.S. attorneys.

"After much consideration, I have concluded that it is highly unlikely that both the Judiciary Committee and the Senate will take prompt action on my nomination in the near term, if ever," Mercer said in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales explaining why he asked Bush to withdraw his nomination.

"This view is informed in part by statements suggesting that some senior Justice nominees will not be voted upon until the Senate receives e-mails and witnesses it has demanded from the White House," Mercer added.

Gonzales, who has fended off demands from some lawmakers for his resignation, ousted the prosecutors last year as part of a plan that originated at the White House.

Critics have questioned whether partisan politics played an improper role in the dismissal plans. Bush and Gonzales say the firing of nine of the 93 U.S. attorneys, all Bush appointees, was justified, although mishandled.


"With no clear end in sight with respect to my nomination, it is untenable for me to pursue both responsibilities and provide proper attention to my family," Mercer wrote.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he viewed the move as an attempt by the Bush administration to sidestep questions from lawmakers.

"The White House has found many ways to keep sunlight from reaching some of the darker corners of the Bush Justice Department, but this is a new one," Leahy said in a statement.

"With a confirmation hearing looming next Tuesday, they have withdrawn this nomination to avoid having to answer more questions under oath."

In a statement, Gonzales offered praise for Mercer.

"Given his 17 years of service in the Department of Justice, I have benefited from Bill Mercer's service as the Acting Associate Attorney General over the past 10 months and am very pleased that the Department will continue to benefit from his leadership, talent and experience through his role as U.S. Attorney in Montana," Gonzales said.

"It's unfortunate that some members of the Senate have indicated they will not act to confirm highly qualified nominees," added Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman, by e-mail.

Exactly a week ago, Mike Elston, the chief of staff to outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, became the fifth Justice Department official to depart since the controversy over the firing of the federal prosecutors flared.

Unlike the others leaving senior department posts, Mercer will retain the U.S. attorney job in Montana. Mercer had faced criticism from some in Congress and elsewhere for holding both jobs at once.