Tuesday, February 06, 2007

U.S. Attorney Firings Set Stage for Congressional Battle

H.E. "Bud" Cummins III had served for five years as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock -- a job he obtained in large part because of his credentials as a longtime GOP lawyer and avid supporter of President Bush.

So Cummins, 47, was more than a little surprised when he got a call from the Justice Department last year asking him to resign. He was told there was nothing wrong with his performance, but that officials in Washington wanted to give the job to another GOP loyalist.

"I don't think many of us were aware that the administration might want to ask someone to step aside just to give someone else an opportunity," said Cummins, who left office in December and was replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove. "The precedent was that once you were appointed, assuming you were successful in office, you were there until there was a change in the White House."

Cummins was the first in a wave of seven U.S. attorneys to be fired by the Justice Department, a move that has prompted sharp criticism from Democrats in Congress and has set the stage for a legislative battle over the attorney general's power to appoint federal prosecutors.

Six of the prosecutors received calls notifying them of their firings on a single day shortly before Christmas, officials said, including the U.S. attorney who oversaw a prominent public corruption probe in San Diego and a prosecutor in New Mexico whose life as a military lawyer was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the movie "A Few Good Men." Most have told colleagues that they have no idea why they were shoved out, according to aides.

A little-noticed provision passed last year allows Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely without seeking approval from the Senate. Fearing an attempted end run around congressional prerogatives, both House and Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to repeal the provision. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue Tuesday.

"The U.S. attorneys' job is too important for there to be unnecessary disruptions, or worse, any appearance of undue influence," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a floor speech last month.

Gonzales and his aides say that they intend to seek Senate approval for every new U.S. attorney and that the old system, which allowed federal judges to appoint replacements, has both practical and constitutional problems. Justice Department officials also defend Gonzales's right to fire U.S. attorneys at will and have suggested that each of the recently dismissed prosecutors had performance problems.

"Every U.S. attorney, like the attorney general of the United States, serves at the pleasure of the president," Gonzales said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "We can be asked to leave at any time; we can be asked to leave for any reason."

He added later: "From time, to time we make an evaluation as to whether we believe we can put in people who can produce better results, who can do a better job."

But there is also evidence that broader political forces are at work. One administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing personnel issues, said the spate of firings was the result of "pressure from people who make personnel decisions outside of Justice who wanted to make some things happen in these places."

Several of those fired have already left, and the rest will be gone by the end of the month.

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