WASHINGTON — The recent forced resignations of six top federal prosecutors, including two in California, were based on "performance-related" concerns and were not politically motivated, a Justice Department official testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty defended the dismissals.
"The indisputable fact is that United States attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president," he said. "They come and they go for lots of reasons."
McNulty also expressed strong opposition to a plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to strip the Justice Department of authority it received last year to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite periods without Senate confirmation.
That power, added to the USA Patriot Act when it was reauthorized in March, has worried some lawmakers. At issue is the amount of oversight that Congress -- now in the hands of Democrats -- has over the appointment of federal prosecutors.
Seven U.S. attorneys, including Carol Lam in San Diego and Kevin Ryan in San Francisco, have been asked to leave. Some Democrats have suggested that the firings are an attempt by the Bush administration to reward political allies and get rid of otherwise capable prosecutors who may be at odds with the White House.
"I have never seen the department more politicized and pushed further away from its mission," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "And now it appears even the hiring and firing of our top federal prosecutors has become infused and corrupted with political, rather than prudent, considerations -- or at least there is a very strong appearance that this is so."
McNulty dismissed suggestions that the firing of the seven prosecutors was politically motivated. The Justice Department, he said, has not and will not "remove a United States attorney to interfere with an ongoing investigation or prosecution or in retaliation for prosecution."
"When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart," he told Schumer.
Some legal experts have said that the moves, while legal, are unorthodox and could have harmful repercussions.
"There's at least a strong perception by those in and outside of the United States attorney's office that this is not business as usual," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson during her testimony Tuesday.
Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on the dismissals of Lam, who plans to step down Feb. 15, and of H.E. "Bud" Cummins, a prosecutor in Little Rock, Ark., who was replaced by a former aide to Karl Rove, President Bush's longtime political strategist.
Lam, who declined to comment about McNulty's remarks Tuesday, headed an investigation that led to the guilty plea, on bribery charges, of Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe. She has been criticized as not being tough enough on smugglers of illegal immigrants.
In a written statement, Ryan, who has not announced a departure date, said only that his resignation was the result of "a mutually agreeable decision with Washington."
McNulty would not publicly discuss why individual prosecutors were asked to step down, other than to say six of the seven were replaced because of "performance-related" issues. The decision to replace the seventh, Cummins, was an "opportunity to provide a fresh start with a new person in that position," he said.