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U.S. attorney put on defensive

Johnny Sutton's prosecution of two border agents in Texas has conservatives up in arms.

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

WASHINGTON — Internet cartoons show him with horns and the word "TRAITOR" branded on his forehead. Conservative talk radio derides him as "Johnny Satan." At least two Republican congressmen, normally staunch defenders of the Bush administration, have castigated him on the House floor.

If the White House and Justice Department had added Johnny Sutton to the list of federal prosecutors to be fired, his ouster probably would not have raised an eyebrow among Democrats, and it would have pleased much of the president's conservative base.

Sutton is the U.S. attorney in west Texas. Based in San Antonio, his border district reaches to El Paso. For five years he has been the top federal lawman in one of the nation's busiest regions, a job he long dreamed of having. It also is one he secured with deep ties to President Bush and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, going back to their time in state government in Austin.

The uproar is over his prosecution of two U.S. Border Patrol agents for the February 2005 shooting of a fleeing Mexican drug smuggler near El Paso, a shooting the agents tried to cover up. Last year, Sutton's office won convictions against Agents Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean.

Each was a line officer in what many people consider a hopeless chore: trying to hold back a deluge of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Each is a father of three. And each was sentenced to more than a decade in prison: Ramos to 11 years, Compean to 12.

"This was a serious, serious crime," Sutton said Thursday on a conservative radio program in Houston, trying again to calm the anger on the political right. "It is a serious crime when law enforcement officers shoot at somebody, shoot him in the back as he's running away, and then cover up the crime."

The agents were sentenced in October, just as the White House and Justice Department were preparing plans to fire eight other federal prosecutors, and the parallel events have left normally strong Bush supporters disappointed that Sutton was not terminated too.

"Johnny Sutton has lied to the American people," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntingon Beach) proclaimed in a House floor speech in March. "Sutton prosecuted the good guys and gave immunity to the bad guys."

T.J. Bonner, head of the union that represents most of the Border Patrol agents, was more forceful in a recent interview. "Johnny Sutton acts like he's America's best friend," Bonner said. "He should be America's Most Wanted."

Sutton, who did not return phone calls for this article, runs a huge district of 93,000 square miles, including 660 miles of the border with Mexico. His staff of 260 employees, including 118 assistant prosecutors, handles federal cases in 68 Texas counties and three of the state's largest cities, San Antonio, El Paso and Austin.

Sutton heads the Attorney General's Advisory Committee, which helps set policies and goals devised by Washington and the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices nationwide, and he often was notified by Washington about the planned firings.

For instance, D. Kyle Sampson, who was chief of staff to Gonzales, worried that the dismissed prosecutors might appeal to Sutton for help in keeping their jobs. So in November, Sampson sent Sutton a list of specific responses he should give them on why they had to go. If they called and asked, "Why me?," he was to tell them it was to "give someone else the chance to serve in your district." (It is unclear whether any did appeal to him.)

Two days before the Dec. 7 firings, Sampson advised that Sutton should be immediately notified so he was "not caught unawares." Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty agreed to "talk to Johnny."

A week after the firings, Sampson sent e-mails to top Justice officials, including Sutton, advising that some fired prosecutors were complaining. McNulty responded that Sutton and others should try to ease the bruised feelings. "Some hand-holding may calm things down," McNulty told Sutton.

Sutton is used to adversity. Friends recalled that despite his small stature, he played left field for the University of Texas baseball squad, though he always feared he would get cut. "He's just very, very tenacious, and every year he would win the position again," said Houston defense lawyer Rusty Hardin, a former state prosecutor in Houston who gave Sutton his first shot at government service.

After Sutton earned a law degree in 1987, he went to work for Hardin. Sutton likes to recall, as he did during the Houston radio interview, that he tried 17 murder cases "and I put three people on death row."

His career took a turn in 1995, when then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed him his law enforcement policy advisor, moving him to Austin and putting him close to both Bush and Gonzales, then the governor's general counsel. For five years Sutton coordinated various state police agencies, and he oversaw an attempt to change the juvenile justice code, though the program failed to pass in the Legislature.

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