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U.S. Attorneys Scandal Reignited

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Hill-04291.jpg

Attorney General Michael Mukasey (WDCpix)

The controversial and complex U.S. attorneys scandal reignited Monday with the release of an internal Justice Dept. report that details how former Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales turned a blind eye as his chief of staff orchestrated the unprecedented dismissal of nine federal prosecutors.

In response, Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey named a special prosecutor, Nora R. Dannehy, acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut. He said Dannehy would investigate whether there was a “prosecutable offense” in the firing of the federal prosecutors, which Mukasey described as “haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional.”

The 356-page report, written by the Office of Inspector General and Office of Personal Responsibility in the Justice Dept., only partly explains the roles of former White House officials Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, who allegedly sought to remove prosecutors the Bush administration considered disloyal. Neither Miers nor Rove would cooperate with investigators.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/scales-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The internal report bolsters congressional investigators’ contention that officials in the Gonzales Justice Dept. fired the attorneys for improper reasons and then misled Congress about the dismissals by lying under oath.

But will the appointment of a special prosecutor intensify the U.S. attorney probe — or does it mean the scandal is on its last legs?

Dannehy, for example, could receive broad authority to press criminal charges. Or she might have the same power as the congressional investigators, who futilely sought testimony from Rove and Miers.

“It is not clear that she will be authorized to subpoena White House officials,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference. “The appointment raises a whole new set of questions.”

The legal authority of any special prosecutor is up to the attorney general. When Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft told Patrick Fitzgerald in 2003 to look at the White House’s role in the disclosure of the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, Fitzgerald got wide latitude to subpoena Bush administration officials. But he had to turn all transcribed interviews over to the Justice Dept. — which has selectively disclosed their contents.

Mukasey did not announce what powers he gave Dannehy, and the Justice Dept. declined to provide the terms of her appointment. Peter Carr, a department spokesman, did say that Dannehy would report to Mark Filip, the deputy attorney general.

The dismissals of the nine prosecutors in 2006 have morphed into one of the administration’s biggest political scandals and resulted in the resignation last year of Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Gonzales, Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general and, eventually, Gonzales in August 2007.

On Dec. 7, 2006, Sampson called for the resignation of seven U.S. attorneys: Daniel Bogden (Nevada); Margaret Chiara (Michigan); Paul Charlton (Arizona); David Iglesias (New Mexico); Carol Lam (Southern California); John McKay (Washington); and Kevin Ryan (Northern California).

Earlier, the Justice Dept. had told H.E. “Bud” Cummins, the federal prosecutor in Arkansas, to resign in June 2006. It also had asked Todd Graves, the U.S. attorney in Missouri, to leave in January 2006.

Justice Dept. officials gave conflicting answers when the House and Senate judiciary committees inquired into the dismissal of the federal prosecutors, who normally serve four-year terms and are replaced at the start of an administration.

But congressional investigators waited until the Justice Dept. released its internal report before pressing for a criminal probe.

After a 19-month investigation, Justice’s inspector general concluded that Gonzales was “remarkably unengaged” in the dismissal plans, which were devised after Bush’s reelection in 2004. It found that Sampson and Miers, then-White House counsel, essentially dictated the firings.

Miers suggested to Sampson that all 93 U.S. attorneys be fired.

Sampson revised that idea. “The vast majority of U.S. attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies,” Sampson wrote in a January 2005 email to the White House. “I suspect when push comes to shove, home-state senators likely would resist wholesale (or even piecemeal) replacement of U.S. attorneys they recommended. …but if Karl [Rove] thinks there is the political will to do it, so do I.”

A week before the dismissals of seven prosecutors in December 2006, Sampson sought final approval from Gonzales, who is depicted in the internal report as mostly out of the loop about the plan. According to several witnesses in the Justice Dept., Gonzales signed off on it. But the attorney general later told investigators that he didn’t recall the meeting with Sampson.

While the report claims that Miers generally lead the push for the firings, Rove is specifically connected with Iglesias’ ouster. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) told Justice Dept. investigators that, in November 2006, she told Rove, “For what it’s worth, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico is a waste of breath.”

According to Wilson, Rove responded, “That decision has already been made. He’s gone.”

Indeed, shortly before that conversation, Iglesias had been added to the list of U.S. attorneys the administration wanted out. In October 2006, Wilson and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) had both complained to the Justice Dept. that Iglesias was not pursuing public corruption and voter-fraud cases — including a case related to Wilson’s House reelection. Domenici and Wilson are both retiring from Congress.

But while there is strong evidence that Iglesias was improperly dismissed, the details of the other firings remain murky two years later.

Cummins and Graves may have been fired for purely partisan reasons. Others, such as Bogden and Charlton, may not have pursued obscenity and death-penalty cases the way the Bush administration wanted them to. Only Ryan is considered to have been fired for legitimate, non-political reasons.

The question now is whether the special prosecutor can do what the Justice Dept. investigators couldn’t–compel Rove, Miers and other White House officials to speak, and then determine if there was criminal wrongdoing in the firings.

“The investigation warrants further inquiry,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, at the news conference yesterday. “And the Bush administration has taken steps to get to the bottom of it with a special prosecutor.”

But Rep. John Conyers, (D-Mich.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Mukasey hurt the “credibility and independence” of the investigation by not naming somebody outside the Justice Dept.

Still, much will depend on Dennahy’s legal skills.

“It really depends on whether the individual exercises the prosecutorial independence they’ve been given,” said Greg Mark, a law professor at Rutgers University.

Dennahy has been a prosecutor for 17 years and is best known for the bribery prosecution of former three-term Connecticut Gov. John Rowland. Her most recent notable prosecution was a scheme by Mafia members to infiltrate Connecticut’s trash pick-up system.

“Dennahy is pretty positively viewed by people in Connecticut,” said Scott Horton, a Columbia University law professor and vocal critic of the Bush administration. “But does she have the stature and independence to deal with high-powered Washington corruption? Connecticut is no preparation for that.”

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