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Listing reasons for the firings

Memos show attorney performance issues were detailed after the fact.

March 21, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Senior Justice Department officials began drafting memos this month listing specific reasons why they had fired eight U.S. attorneys, intending to cite performance problems such as insubordination, leadership failures and other missteps if needed to convince angry congressional Democrats that the terminations were justified.

The memos, organized as charts with entries for each of the federal prosecutors and labeled "for internal DOJ use only," offer new details about disputes over policy, priorities and management styles between the department and several of its U.S. attorneys.

The prosecutors' shortcomings also were listed in a talking-points memo, indicating the willingness of the Justice Department to make public what are normally confidential personnel matters in order to counter its critics.

Justice Department officials hoped that documenting specific reasons for terminating the prosecutors would satisfy demands for more information after Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, described the dismissals as vaguely "performance-related."

According to the charts, as well as e-mails and other documents made public Monday and Tuesday, Carol C. Lam in San Diego was dismissed for not prosecuting more firearms and border smuggling cases, and for repeatedly missing deadlines.

David C. Iglesias in Albuquerque traveled so much he was considered an "absentee landlord."

In San Francisco, where Kevin Ryan was fired, "the office has become the most fractured office in the nation, morale has fallen to the point that it is harming our prosecutorial efforts and [Ryan] has lost the confidence of many of the career prosecutors who are leaving the office."

The justification was equally sweeping for Paul Charlton in Phoenix: "Repeated instances of insubordination, actions taken contrary to instructions, and actions that were clearly unauthorized."

As for Margaret M. Chiara in Grand Rapids, Mich., the memo advised saying nothing about her dismissal because she had not made public statements in her defense. But the memo also said that "if pushed," the department should say morale in her office was low and that Chiara had lost the support of her staff.

The documents show that in a separate chain of e-mails, former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers mused in November, a month before the firings, about whether President Bush should be briefed about the terminations.

On Nov. 15, D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales' chief of staff, e-mailed Miers; her deputy, William Kelley; and McNulty about the plan for notifying the prosecutors on Dec. 7. But Sampson did not want to put the plan in motion until the Justice Department got approval from the White House -- and he thought it prudent that White House political advisor Karl Rove be made aware of the plan.

"We'll stand by for a green light from you," Sampson told the White House. "Until the green light, we'll circulate the plan ... and ask that you circulate it to Karl's shop."

Sampson added that although he had not "informed anyone in Karl's shop" about the imminent firings, he considered it "another pre-execution necessity I would recommend."

It was unclear whether Rove was notified at that point. But more than two years ago, Rove had sought input from the Justice Department on how many U.S. attorneys should be retained in the second term.

Miers responded to Sampson's e-mail: "Not sure whether this will be determined to require [Bush's] attention. If it does, he just left last night so would not be able to accomplish that for some time. We will see. Thanks."

The documents did not divulge whether Bush was advised; he left the night before for a seven-day trip to Asia and Moscow.

Bush said Tuesday that the Justice Department heard complaints from congressional members of both parties about the lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases and immigration matters.

"These concerns are often shared between the White House and the Justice Department, and that is completely appropriate," Bush said.

Of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, only Charlton could be reached for comment Tuesday. "My record speaks for itself, and I am proud of the positions I took," he said.

He also provided an e-mail from James B. Comey, the former deputy attorney general who was his boss until McNulty took over in March 2006.

"I considered you a star among U.S. attorneys," Comey told Charlton in the Feb. 9 e-mail. "You ran an office with a staggering caseload, in both numbers and variety, and did it beautifully."

Comey added that he knew of "no performance issues" with Charlton. "In fact, quite the contrary, because you were at the top of your class."

Charlton was criticized in the memos for mandating that FBI agents break their policy of not taping interviews, and for allowing an employee to go on leave without pay to work on a Republican gubernatorial campaign in Arizona in 2002.

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