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Lam defends her performance as a U.S. attorney

Statements by her and several others show they are increasingly convinced politics were behind their firings.

May 03, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a strongly worded defense of her four-year tenure as U.S. attorney in San Diego, Carol C. Lam told congressional investigators that she was constantly given conflicting instructions from Washington and was expected to bring more prosecutions with fewer resources.

According to written statements released Wednesday -- her first public comments since testifying two months ago about her firing -- Lam also said she was given just weeks to clear out of her office and was informed by Justice Department officials that her ouster was "coming from the very highest levels of the government."

And, she said, Washington wanted her to pretend as though it was her decision to leave office. When Michael A. Battle, then a Justice Department supervisor for U.S. attorneys, called her in December to tell her she was being terminated, she said, "He advised me to simply say publicly that I had decided to pursue other opportunities."

Lam's statements, and those of five other fired federal prosecutors, are contained in written responses to the House Judiciary Committee, which is pursuing allegations that the terminations were politically motivated.

In all, eight prosecutors were removed last year. The firings have prompted Capitol Hill Democrats, and some Republicans, to call for the removal of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.

The responses, released by the House panel, also show that several of the ousted prosecutors are becoming increasingly convinced they were dismissed for political rather than performance reasons.

Daniel G. Bogden, the former U.S. attorney in Las Vegas, said Justice Department officials told him he was being replaced to make room for future Republican officeholders. He said acting Associate Atty. Gen. William Mercer told him that with the Bush administration in its final years, the GOP wanted to promote up-and-comers to federal judgeships and political offices.

Looking back at what has happened since his ouster in December, Bogden said his removal "may have been due, in part, to an effort to politicize the Department of Justice."

Others said they felt threatened when Justice Department officials cautioned them not to complain about their firings.

Former U.S. Atty. Paul Charlton of Phoenix said that Michael Elston, an aide to the deputy attorney general, suggested that if Charlton did not publicly complain about being removed, Gonzales would not speak ill of him on Capitol Hill.

"Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement," Charlton said. "My silence in exchange for the attorney general's."

John McKay, the fired prosecutor in Seattle, said he too felt threatened. "Mr. Elston's tone was sinister," McKay said, and "he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal."

Another fired prosecutor, H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Little Rock, Ark., said he was told that he was being pushed aside to make room for a protege of White House political director Karl Rove. He said Elston urged him not to complain -- a suggestion Cummins shared with the other fired prosecutors.

"They were offended and viewed the statements made by Elston as a threat," Cummins said. "One remarked, 'What's next? A horse head in the bed?' "

Mercer and Elston have not spoken publicly about the firings. But they and other top Justice Department officials, including Gonzales, have maintained that the prosecutors were dismissed for performance reasons.

Yet several of the fired prosecutors said in the written statements that they could not get a truthful answer from Battle when he called to tell them they were being terminated.

David C. Iglesias, former U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, said he pressed Battle on why he was being removed, only to be told: "I don't know and I don't want to know."

Bogden said Battle told him the decision was made by "higher-ups" whose identities he did not know.

Cummins, outraged at how the prosecutors were treated, said that for the administration to now suggest that performance problems were behind the firings "was a bunch of hogwash."

Battle also has not commented about the dismissals; he recently resigned from his Justice Department post.

Lam said that after Battle told her she had to go, she pleaded with Elston for more time because of "pending investigations and several significant cases that were set to begin trial."

Her office was in the final preparations for grand jury indictments of defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes and Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, a former top CIA official, on corruption charges arising out of the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

Lam said Elston told her that her request for more time was "not being received positively," and "he insisted that I had to depart in a matter of weeks, not months, and that these instructions were 'coming from the very highest level of the government.' "

She said that though she never had felt Washington sufficiently supported her in San Diego, it was only later that she learned Justice officials were publicly saying she was fired for performance reasons.

Lam, who has been criticized for not prosecuting more immigration cases, said that such criticism was unfair and that Washington knew she was targeting larger cases for greater impact. She also said there were up to 15 key vacancies in her office that were never filled because of budget restraints.

"Fewer attorneys and staff makes it more difficult to cover the wide spectrum of cases we thought we should prosecute," Lam said.

The complete responses from the six former U.S. attorneys can be viewed at http://judiciary.house.gov.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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