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E-mails detail goals in firing U.S. attorneys

A White House and Justice Dept. team effort led to the eight ousters.

Congress Investigates

High value was placed on political allegiance.

March 14, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just weeks after President Bush was inaugurated for a second term in January 2005, his White House and the Justice Department had pretty much settled on a plan to "push out" some of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys.

But which ones?

D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, came up with a checklist. He rated each of the prosecutors with criteria that appeared to value political allegiance as much as job performance.

He recommended retaining "strong U.S. attorneys who have ... exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general." He suggested "removing weak U.S. attorneys who have ... chafed against administration initiatives."

Those words are enshrined in some 150 pages of e-mails and other documents the White House turned over Tuesday to the Senate and House Judiciary committees. The panels are looking into allegations that the firings were motivated by political reasons rather than the prosecutors' performance, as the Justice Department has said.

The documents offer an extraordinary look at political tactics within the Bush administration, and show the White House working closely with the Justice Department to justify the firings. The administration even adopted contingency plans for how to "quiet" anyone who complained. And it was the administration that gave the final go-ahead to fire eight prosecutors, all of them Bush appointees.

The documents show that in one case, officials were eager to free up the prosecutor's slot in Little Rock, Ark., so it could be filled by Timothy Griffin, a GOP operative close to White House political advisor Karl Rove, at all costs.

"We should gum this to death," Sampson e-mailed Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's liaison to the White House. He said officials should talk up Griffin's appointment and try to "forestall" any criticism from Capitol Hill. Just "run out the clock" on any objections, he said.

Elsewhere, the documents describe the office of Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who was pushing for the removal of the prosecutor in Albuquerque, as "happy as a clam" that David C. Iglesias was fired.

But the material also noted that Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) was "very unhappy" about the ouster of U.S. Atty. Daniel G. Bogden of Las Vegas and "didn't understand the urgency."

It also made clear that in San Diego, U.S. Atty. Carol Lam was fired for not being tougher on illegal immigration. Sampson told White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley that the Justice Department had a "real problem" with Lam. He later asked acting Associate Atty. Gen. William Mercer whether officials "ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement."

The disclosure of Sampson's aggressive role in the episodes came as Gonzales announced Tuesday that Sampson was stepping down as chief of staff. Sampson had worked for Gonzales at the White House and in the attorney general's office.

His dual role -- like Gonzales' -- in wearing both White House and Justice Department hats made him a pivotal character in the way prosecutors were selected for removal and their firings were handled, and in how the department tried to calm allegations of improper political influence.

Indeed, even as he was orchestrating the removal of the prosecutors, Sampson reportedly was hoping to land back in his home state of Utah as a U.S. attorney, although the prosecutor there was not among those fired.

Initially, Sampson and then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers mused about firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, wiping the slate clean and replacing them with new appointees at the start of Bush's second term. Such a broad gesture would have sprinkled political gratitude to operatives like Griffin of Arkansas, who had worked in the 2004 campaign, they thought.

But they soon backed off that idea as too disruptive. So they began making lists of individuals, and eventually settled on eight.

In January 2006, Sampson sent a confidential memo to Miers and Kelley, outlining options.

He suggested that once the prosecutors were told they were being fired, the Justice Department "could work quietly with the targeted U.S. attorneys to encourage them to leave government service voluntarily."

"This," he said, "would allow targeted U.S. attorneys to make arrangements for work in the private sector and 'save face' regarding the reason for leaving office."

Meanwhile, the administration was slowly gathering evidence to make its move.

In July, for instance, a Justice Department official advised the White House that U.S. Atty. Paul Charlton in Arizona was not prosecuting marijuana cases involving less than 500 pounds. His stance had riled then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In September, Brent Ward, head of the Justice Department's obscenity task force, complained to Sampson about Charlton and Bogden.

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