WASHINGTON — A former high-ranking Justice Department official offered praise Thursday for most of the U.S. attorneys who were fired last year, saying he considered some of them to be among the department's most able prosecutors.
James B. Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 until 2005, often contradicted the White House and the Justice Department, which have said the eight U.S. attorneys were fired for performance reasons.
Comey told a House Judiciary subcommittee that six of the former prosecutors had been doing a good job, and that only one was among those he considered to be weak performers.
Comey, a senior vice president and general counsel at Lockheed Martin Corp., said that he had had "very positive encounters" with the prosecutors and that the official explanations given for the firings were not consistent with his experience -- though, he noted, he left about two years ago.
The testimony of the career prosecutor and onetime Republican political appointee was among the most devastating for the White House and Justice Department, and appeared to complicate efforts by the administration to defuse a controversy that has threatened the two-year tenure of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.
Comey's comments added fuel to suspicions among Democrats, who are investigating whether the firings were orchestrated for partisan reasons such as managing corruption investigations to benefit Republicans.
"James Comey is a respected prosecutor who served the American people well as a U.S. attorney as well as deputy attorney general," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). "Today, we further confirmed that the department's stated reasons for firing the six U.S. attorneys who testified before this committee had little or no basis in fact."
Comey testified that he had no information to suggest the firings were meant to disrupt pending corruption investigations. As deputy attorney general he was responsible for supervising U.S. attorneys across the country, but he said he was never informed that a plan was in place to fire several prosecutors.
The current deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty, has testified that he was largely out of the loop in the two-year process that led to the firings. He said he did not know about the terminations until two months before they took place.
Comey said the only contact he had with anyone about the firings was a 15-minute meeting in February 2005 with D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales' chief of staff, in which he was asked to give an offhand assessment of poor-performing U.S. attorneys.
"I thought it was a casual comment in the course of a very brief meeting," Comey said.
Comey said he never contacted White House officials about firing U.S. attorneys. Although Sampson and others in the small group of staff members involved in the dismissals often communicated with White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers about the firings, Comey said his discussions with Miers never included hiring decisions.
A Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said the department would not comment on Comey's testimony.
Comey heaped praise on many of the fired prosecutors, and said he admired their integrity, management skills and dedication.
He said Daniel G. Bogden, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada, was as "straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy" who "made tremendous strides" in reducing violent crime in Las Vegas.
He said John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney in Seattle, "was one of my favorites," in part because he pushed new technology to share information between state and federal authorities.
Justice Department officials have said one reason McKay was fired was that he pursued such technology.
Comey said some of the traits that the Justice Department had cited as weaknesses in the former prosecutors were, in his view, strengths.
He said the Justice Department decided to reverse a decision to seek the death penalty in an Arizona case after the state's top federal prosecutor, Paul Charlton, argued that sparing the man would be in the interest of justice.
The department has accused Charlton of insubordination, including an alleged resistance to Washington's demands to seek the death penalty.
Comey testified that he welcomed the input that Charlton and other prosecutors offered in death penalty cases, and often found their arguments to be compelling.
"I would never not only not discourage that kind of thing, I would encourage it," Comey said. "Because I needed to hear from the people in the field who knew these cases, because I'm trying to make these decisions off a notebook in Washington.... You always want that input."
Comey said he met with Carol C. Lam, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego, because her district was lagging in gun prosecutions. He said her performance did not justify her firing, and he considered her an effective prosecutor.
Comey said the prosecutor he cited as a weak performer in his conversation with Sampson was Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. attorney in San Francisco. Ryan was later fired.
"He's a fine guy," Comey said. "He just had management challenges in that office that were fairly serious."
Meanwhile, lawyers for Monica M. Goodling, once Gonzales' liaison to the White House, signaled that she would not cooperate with a Justice Department investigation. She is accused of considering party affiliation when she vetted applications for federal prosecutors.
In a letter to investigators, Goodling's lawyers said the timing of the inquiry, which the department disclosed Wednesday, "smacks of retribution and intimidation."
Lawmakers are seeking to give Goodling immunity from prosecution so she will testify.