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Prosecutor To Probe Firings Of U.S. Attorneys

Attorney General Michael Mukasey has appointed a federal prosecutor to follow up on a scathing investigation of the Bush administration's decision to fire nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. The Justice Department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility released the report jointly Monday morning. It is harsh, but incomplete, as key officials in the White House and Congress refused to cooperate with the inquiry.

The nearly 400-page report provides a road map to one of the most chaotic periods in the department's history. It has no praise for anyone who was in charge then. According to the report:

  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "failed to exercise appropriate leadership and supervision throughout this entire process."
  • Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty made public statements that were "inconsistent, misleading or inaccurate."
  • Chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who oversaw the U.S. attorney firings, "mishandled the removal process from the outset."

All three of those men resigned over the controversy, as did more than a dozen others.

Investigators found no evidence that anyone at the Justice Department evaluated the reasons for firing each U.S. attorney. They also found that no one tried to keep improper political considerations out of the firing process. That means prosecutors may have been fired for refusing to indict Democrats or for prosecuting Republicans. Indeed, investigators "found substantial evidence that partisan political considerations played a part in the removal of several of the U.S. attorneys."

The most "troubling example," investigators concluded, "was the removal of David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico." Iglesias was fired after Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) complained to the White House and to Gonzales that Iglesias was not prosecuting Democrats before Election Day.

Iglesias said that when he read the report on Monday morning, he felt "a tremendous sense of relief and vindication."

"What I've been saying all along has now been substantiated," Iglesias said. "That these firings were wrongful, that there was no legal basis for them, and now it's going to the next level, which is they may have broken criminal laws."

Investigators cannot say for sure whether anyone broke a law in the Iglesias case or others, because neither Domenici nor the White House would cooperate with the investigation. Former White House Counsel Harriet Miers refused to testify, as did Karl Rove, former political adviser to President Bush.

At one point, the White House created a timeline of the U.S. attorney firings. They shared that timeline with the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, but when investigators asked for the timeline, the White House told the Office of Legal Counsel not to share the document with the investigators.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) blamed Mukasey for tolerating Bush administration stonewalling.

"Why did the attorney general not direct the Office of Legal Counsel to provide the reports?" Whitehouse asked. "Why did he not go to the White House and say, 'If you're not cooperating, I'm not your attorney general any longer?'"

Federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy will now pursue the questions the inspector general was unable to answer. She is a 17-year veteran of the Justice Department who is currently in charge of the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut.

Mukasey appointed Dannehy to lead the investigation and instructed her to report back within 60 days on the status of the investigation.

One issue she'll examine is whether Gonzales committed any crimes.

George Terwilliger, Gonzales' lawyer, says he is upset the investigation will continue.

"The bottom line is the report does not report any evidence of criminal wrongdoing," Terwilliger said. "And whether they were able to answer all the questions they wanted to ask or not is beside the point."

Former U.S. attorneys are a close-knit group, and on Monday, many of them were reading the report. Republican Matt Orwig of Dallas — who was not one of the nine attorneys fired in 2006 — says he found the report "literally sickening."

Orwig was once called a "loyal Bushie," a description he says he finds offensive. Orwig says the Justice Department has always had a wall of independence from political influence, and "that wall of independence was just completely torn down, burned and hauled off" during the U.S. attorney firings scandal. Orwig says it will take years to rebuild that wall.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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