Thursday, March 29, 2007

U.S. Attorney Scandal Festers

Here's a brief roundup of the latest on the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales endured blunt criticism Tuesday from federal prosecutors who questioned the firings of eight United States attorneys, complained that the dismissals had undermined morale and expressed broader grievances about his leadership, according to people briefed on the discussion.

About a half-dozen United States attorneys voiced their concerns at a private meeting with Mr. Gonzales in Chicago.

Several of the prosecutors said the dismissals caused them to wonder about their own standing and distracted their employees, according to one person familiar with the discussions. Others asked Mr. Gonzales about the removal of Daniel C. Bogden, the former United States attorney in Nevada, a respected career prosecutor whose ouster has never been fully explained by the Justice Department.

While Mr. Gonzales's trip was part of a long-scheduled tour, he has been meeting in recent days with prosecutors in an effort to repair the damage caused by the dismissals. President Bush has backed Mr. Gonzales, but his tenure at the Justice Department may still be in peril as lawmakers in both parties have called for his resignation, questioned his credibility and raised doubts that he can lead the department.

His former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, is to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. In his prepared testimony, Mr. Sampson, who resigned two weeks ago, said the prosecutors were fired not for political reasons, but because they failed to follow the president's priorities. He is likely to be closely questioned about the extent of Mr. Gonzales's involvement in planning the firings.

Karl Rove has had a larger role in White House dealings with the Justice Department than previously known:

Almost every Wednesday afternoon, advisers to President Bush gather to strategize about putting his stamp on the federal courts and the United States attorneys' offices.

The group meets in the Roosevelt Room and includes aides to the White House counsel, the chief of staff, the attorney general and Karl Rove, who also sometimes attends himself. Each of them signs off on every nomination.

Mr. Rove, a top adviser to the president, takes charge of the politics. As caretaker to the administration’s conservative allies, Mr. Rove relays their concerns, according to several participants in the Wednesday meetings. And especially for appointments of United States attorneys, he manages the horse trading.

Mr. Rove's role has put him in the center of a Senate inquiry into the dismissal of eight United States attorneys. Democrats and a few Republicans have raised questions about whether the prosecutors were being replaced to impede or jump-start investigations for partisan goals.

Political advisers have had a hand in picking judges and prosecutors for decades, but Mr. Rove exercises unusually broad influence over political, policy and personnel decisions because of his closeness to the president, tenure in the administration and longstanding interest in turning the judiciary to the right.

In Illinois, Mr. Rove once reprimanded a Republican senator for recommending the appointment of Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a star prosecutor from outside the state, to investigate the state’s then-governor, a Republican. In New Jersey, Mr. Rove helped arrange the nomination of a major Bush campaign fund-raiser who had little prosecutorial experience. In Louisiana, he first supported and then helped scuttle a similar appointment.

In the months before the United States attorneys in New Mexico and Washington State were ousted, Mr. Rove joined a chorus of complaints from state Republicans that the federal prosecutors had failed to press charges in Democratic voter fraud cases. While planning a June 21, 2006, White House session to discuss the prosecutors, for example, a Rove deputy arranged for top Justice Department officials to meet with an important Bush supporter who was critical of New Mexico’s federal prosecutor about voter fraud.

And in Arkansas, newly released Justice Department e-mail messages show, Mr. Rove's staff repeatedly prodded the department's staff to install one of his protégés as a United States attorney by ousting a previous Bush appointee who was in good standing.

Senate Democrats and a few Republicans have called for Mr. Rove to testify publicly about the dismissals.

The document dump from the DOJ has yielded evidence of such a fruitful bounty that several top Democratic lawmakers are looking higher -- to the White House -- for additional goodies:

The chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees, John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), respectively, urged the Bush administration to turn over internal e-mails and comply with their ongoing investigation of the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys.

In a letter to Fred Fielding, Conyers and Leahy asked the White House counsel to turn over all relevant e-mails to the committees for their investigation.

"We hope that you will reconsider your 'all or nothing' approach with respect to documents you identified that you would be willing to provide," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge you to provide all relevant documents without delay."

The chairmen asked Fielding to turn over "internal" e-mails, defined as those sent between White House staff, to their committees for review. In the conditions Fielding offered to the chairmen last week, the administration would not provide any e-mails that were exchanged between staffers.

"Thus, while we do not agree with you that what you describe as 'internal' White House documents should be off limits, we recognize that you view them as a separate category and you disagree whether those should be shared with the Committees," Conyers and Leahy wrote.

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