Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Why Have So Many U.S. Attorneys Been Fired? It Looks a Lot Like Politics

By Adam Cohen


Carol Lam, the former United States attorney for San Diego, is smart and tireless and was very good at her job. Her investigation of Representative Randy Cunningham resulted in a guilty plea for taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors and a sentence of more than eight years. Two weeks ago, she indicted Kyle Dustin Foggo, the former No. 3 official in the C.I.A. The defense-contracting scandal she pursued so vigorously could yet drag in other politicians.

In many Justice Departments, her record would have won her awards, and perhaps a promotion to a top post in Washington. In the Bush Justice Department, it got her fired.

Ms. Lam is one of at least seven United States attorneys fired recently under questionable circumstances. The Justice Department is claiming that Ms. Lam and other well-regarded prosecutors like John McKay of Seattle, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona — who all received strong job evaluations — performed inadequately.

It is hard to call what’s happening anything other than a political purge. And it’s another shameful example of how in the Bush administration, everything — from rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged city to allocating homeland security dollars to invading Iraq — is sacrificed to partisan politics and winning elections.

U.S. attorneys have enormous power. Their decision to investigate or indict can bankrupt a business or destroy a life. They must be, and long have been, insulated from political pressures. Although appointed by the president, once in office they are almost never asked to leave until a new president is elected. The Congressional Research Service has confirmed how unprecedented these firings are. It found that of 486 U.S. attorneys confirmed since 1981, perhaps no more than three were forced out in similar ways — three in 25 years, compared with seven in recent months.

It is not just the large numbers. The firing of H. E. Cummins III is raising as many questions as Ms. Lam’s. Mr. Cummins, one of the most distinguished lawyers in Arkansas, is respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. But he was forced out to make room for J. Timothy Griffin, a former Karl Rove deputy with thin legal experience who did opposition research for the Republican National Committee. (Mr. Griffin recently bowed to the inevitable and said he will not try for a permanent appointment. But he remains in office indefinitely.)

The Bush administration cleared the way for these personnel changes by slipping a little-noticed provision into the Patriot Act last year that allows the president to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period without Senate confirmation.

Three theories are emerging for why these well-qualified U.S. attorney were fired — all political, and all disturbing.

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