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Gonzales and deputy criticized in the firings of U.S. attorneys

A Justice Department report says the former attorney general was 'remarkably unengaged.'

September 30, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As U.S. attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales and his top deputy, Paul J. McNulty, "abdicated their responsibility" in the 2006 dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys, were strikingly aloof and uninformed about the process and offered the public reasons for the firings that were "inconsistent, misleading and or inaccurate," Justice Department investigators concluded Monday.

The authors of the long-awaited report, prepared by the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, were unable to conclusively determine whether crimes were committed as part of the politically charged firings and called for further investigation, particularly into the role of the White House.

Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey, responding to that request, named Nora R. Dannehy, a career prosecutor with a record of investigating corruption cases, to continue the inquiry.

"The report describes a disappointing chapter in the history of the department," Mukasey said, adding that Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut, would "pursue this wherever the facts and the law require."

The 392-page report, while detailing the circumstances surrounding the unprecedented midterm firing of the prosecutors, still leaves unresolved basic questions -- such as who ordered the dismissals and why. At the same time, it found "substantial evidence that partisan political considerations played a role in the removal of several of the U.S. attorneys."

Expressing frustration that they were operating with incomplete information, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, put much of the blame on the White House, which refused to provide documents about the firings.

Several former officials -- including Karl Rove, President Bush's longtime political advisor, and Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel when the firings occurred -- declined to be interviewed.

"We believe our investigation was able to uncover most of the facts relating to the reasons for the removal of most of the U.S. attorneys," Fine and Jarrett said. "However . . . there are gaps in our investigation because of the refusal of certain key witnesses to be interviewed by us."

The report describes Gonzales, who in a newspaper commentary dismissed the controversy as an "overblown personnel matter," as "remarkably unengaged."

Gonzales claimed "an extraordinary lack of recollection about the entire removal process," the report found. He was unable, for example, to recall any details of a November 2006 meeting in his office where a list of the prosecutors to be removed was completed.

McNulty, who supervised all of the U.S. attorneys, failed to challenge the methodology used for identifying those to be fired after he learned about the plan, the report said.

The report said the Justice Department followed an ad-hoc process in deciding who was to be removed, and offered after-the-fact explanations that were often contrived.

Some of the harshest language concerned Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who oversaw the firings. The report said he engaged in misconduct by making misleading statements to Congress and investigators, who questioned the credibility of his claims that he could not recall why certain attorneys were added to the list.

The report said two prosecutors, Kevin Ryan of San Francisco and Margaret M. Chiara of Grand Rapids, Mich., were fired for legitimate management reasons. Chiara has said she believes she was fired because of unfounded rumors that she was in a lesbian relationship with an attorney in her office. The report criticized two former prosecutors for spreading rumors, but also questioned Chiara's management, a finding that her lawyer challenged Monday.

Investigators also found no evidence to support the widespread speculation that two others, Carol C. Lam of San Diego and Paul Charlton of Phoenix, were fired because of their pursuit of corruption cases against Republicans.

The "most troubling" case, the report said, involved the former U.S. attorney in Albuquerque, David C. Iglesias, whose dismissal was originally linked by department officials to concerns over his management style.

The report found the "real reason" was one that emerged in hearings last year -- that GOP members of the New Mexico congressional delegation, including Rep. Heather A. Wilson and Sen. Pete V. Domeneci, had complained to Gonzales and Rove about Iglesias' alleged failure to pursue voter fraud and public corruption cases before the November 2006 election. The report said Domeneci declined to be interviewed by investigators.

George Terwilliger, Gonzales' attorney, said the report confirmed that Gonzales had been truthful with Congress about his involvement. Terwilliger criticized the authors, however, for second-guessing personnel decisions that were within the exclusive discretion of the president.

Bradford Berenson, Sampson's attorney, said he found the criticism of his client to be "mystifying and disappointing." Sampson, he said, "had provided his best, most honest and complete recollection of these events."

The fired U.S. attorneys released a statement in which they said they were "saddened by the picture of mismanagement, dissembling and lack of accountability" that the report painted.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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