Wednesday, August 01, 2007

DOJ HQ Intervenes in Case, US Attorney Resists Pressure, Gets On Dismissal List

The night before the government secured a guilty plea from the manufacturer of the addictive painkiller OxyContin, a senior Justice Department official called the U.S. attorney handling the case and, at the behest of an executive for the drugmaker, urged him to slow down, the prosecutor told the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday.

John L. Brownlee, the U.S. attorney in Roanoke, testified that he was at home the evening of Oct. 24 when he received the call on his cellphone from Michael J. Elston, then chief of staff to the deputy attorney general and one of the Justice aides involved in the removal of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

Brownlee settled the case anyway. Eight days later, his name appeared on a list compiled by Elston of prosecutors that officials had suggested be fired.

Brownlee ultimately kept his job. But as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales confronts withering criticism over the dismissals, the episode in the OxyContin case provides fresh evidence of efforts by senior officials in the department's headquarters to sway the work of U.S. attorneys' offices. ...

Brownlee said the head of the criminal division had authorized him that afternoon to execute the plea agreement. In his testimony and in an interview afterward, Brownlee recounted that he asked Elston whether he was calling for his boss, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, and Elston replied, "No."

"I told him to leave it alone, to go away," Brownlee said, "and he did."

But Elston's attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, said his client had telephoned Brownlee at the direction of McNulty, who that evening had received an appeal for more time by Mary Jo White, a defense lawyer representing an executive for OxyContin's manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. White is a former Manhattan U.S. attorney.

A Justice official, who spoke about internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity, also said McNulty had asked his chief of staff to place the call.

Elston was McNulty's top aide until he stepped down in June amid the controversy over the prosecutors' firings. McNulty also has resigned, effective Friday, becoming the sixth senior aide to Gonzales involved in the controversy to leave the department in recent months.

Brownlee -- who testified that he had not received negative performance reviews -- said that he was "concerned" about his name appearing on the firing list and that he spoke to McNulty about it. "He assured me that Mr. Elston was a good man," Brownlee said. "I had my own views."

In addition to assembling the Nov. 1 list of five prosecutors, including Brownlee, who were recommended for dismissal, Elston also played a controversial role in trying to quell the political uproar after the firings took place. Four of those prosecutors have told Congress that Elston warned them that Gonzales might criticize them in public if they spoke out about the circumstances of their removal.

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