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Justice Dept. Attempted To Curb Fallout

Documents show that officials scrambled to contain publicity over U.S. attorney firings.

March 20, 2007|Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the scandal over the firing of a select group of U.S. attorneys was building two weeks ago, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department tried to persuade one of those being removed that Washington was not out to ruin their reputations.

According to new documents released Monday, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty told Margaret M. Chiara of Grand Rapids, Mich., that "our only choice is to continue to be truthful about the entire matter," and in an e-mail sought to explain the official Bush administration position that the eight federal prosecutors were being let go for performance reasons.

"The word 'performance' obviously has not set well with you and your colleagues," McNulty conceded. "By that word we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management/leadership that we felt were important to the department's effectiveness."

Chiara was complaining vigorously that she was not being given a reasonable answer for her termination. McNulty's attempts to calm the prosecutor came as the other U.S. attorneys were about to testify before Senate and House committees that they were not given sound reasons for their dismissals.

Chiara's complaints and McNulty's e-mail were found in more than 3,000 pages of new documents delivered late Monday night by the Justice Department to congressional panels, about 1,000 of which were made public. The remaining pages are expected to be made public today.

The documents show that Justice Department officials have been scrambling over the last two months to control the amount of damaging fallout and negative publicity from the widening scandal, even lamenting at one point that "we just want the stories to die."

Testimony on March 6 from the dismissed U.S. attorneys prompted charges from Democrats that the firings were politically motivated, and it has led to repeated calls for the resignations of McNulty and his boss, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

On Monday, names began surfacing as possible replacements for Gonzales as speculation increased that he would not be in the post much longer.

People close to the administration said that any list of possible candidates would include Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Larry D. Thompson, the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft; and Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor general under Ashcroft.

Others speculated that Bush might turn to a former senator in the hope of ensuring an easy confirmation. They said in that event, the president might consider John C. Danforth, the former ambassador to the United Nations and onetime Republican senator from Missouri, and actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican.

Tasia Scolinos, spokeswoman at the Justice Department, called the large document release a "virtually unprecedented step" by officials besieged with questions about whether politics were the true motivation behind the firings.

"The department did not remove the U.S. attorneys for improper reasons such as to prevent or retaliate for a particular prosecution in a public corruption matter," she said.

Indeed, some of the documents show Justice Department officials discussing individual problems with the various fired prosecutors.

They were critical of Paul Charlton in Phoenix because he wanted to change Gonzales' mind about a death penalty case in Arizona.

They were upset with Daniel G. Bogden in Las Vegas for not bringing enough obscenity prosecutions. McNulty said in an e-mail two days before the firings that he had second thoughts about Bogden.

"I'm still a little skittish about Bogden ... I'll admit (I) have not looked at his district's performance."

The documents also show that Washington officials were frustrated with Carol C. Lam of San Diego and David C. Iglesias of Albuquerque for not doing more on border crime cases.

Although some of the documents seemed to buttress statements by the Justice Department that the dismissals were for legitimate performance reasons, they did little to quell speculation that Gonzales was on the way out.

The White House denied a report on the website that Republican Party operatives had been dispatched by the administration to start identifying possible successors to Gonzales.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the report was "not accurate."

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, "We hope he stays."

Just as Gonzales and McNulty are fighting for their jobs, so too was Chiara -- remarkable in the number of letters and e-mails she sent to Washington demanding an explanation for why she was being forced out.

On Nov. 5, a month before she was formally notified along with others that she was being fired, Chiara e-mailed McNulty about her fears of being out of work with no job prospects.

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