- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2007

Two key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee want the Justice Department to explain why nearly 25 percent of the U.S. attorney’s offices nationwide are leaderless and whether the White House is working with home-state senators to fill the vacancies.

In a letter to acting Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, Democratic Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee’s chairman, and Dianne Feinstein of California, a member, said 23 of the 93 U.S. attorney positions across the country remain vacant.

“We write to inquire whether you and the administration are working with the senators whose states encompass each of those districts to identify and nominate strong and independent U.S. attorneys,” they said, noting that a nominee has not yet been named in 21 of the 23 districts where there is a vacancy.

“When it comes to the U.S. attorneys in our home states, senators have a stake in ensuring fairness and independence in order to insulate the federal law enforcement function from untoward political influence,” the senators said.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse has said that the department is “working diligently” to name replacements but that interim prosecutors serving in the positions are “perfectly capable of effectively running the offices.”

Earlier this year, the Judiciary Committee investigated the administration’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys, a probe that contributed to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. After rancorous hearings, Congress also closed a loophole that restored a 120-day time limit on the attorney general’s appointment of interim U.S. attorneys. That legislation passed the Senate 97-0.

The controversy surfaced after the Bush administration fired seven U.S. attorneys midterm, which critics called unprecedented. They were dismissed without explanation and replaced with interim appointees under provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and top Justice Department officials, including Mr. Gonzales, could not explain why.

Senate investigators later discovered and reported during Senate hearings in January and March that at least two other U.S. attorneys had been dismissed without explanation or cause.

One former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David C. Iglesias, told the Judiciary Committee that he was fired after Republican lawmakers called him and voiced concern about the sluggish pace of a corruption probe of New Mexico Democrats last year.

Mr. Iglesias said he felt “leaned on” by Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, adding that Mrs. Wilson “wanted to talk about sealed indictments.” He said Mr. Domenici hung up on him when he was told not to expect any indictments before the November elections.

Mr. Domenici and Mrs. Wilson said they did not intend to pressure Mr. Iglesias about the case.

Carol Lam, a 2002 Bush appointee who oversaw the successful bribery prosecution of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, told the committee that she thought her termination was connected to complaints by a Republican lawmaker.

The Justice Department issued a request for her dismissal in January for not aggressively pursuing the prosecution of border crimes.

Although Mr. Gonzales told the Judiciary Committee that U.S. attorneys “serve at the pleasure of the president” and described the affair as “an overblown personnel matter,” committee members focused on what they described as partisan politics by the White House in firing the U.S. attorneys.

Eight senior Justice Department staff members have resigned in the wake of the investigation.

U.S. ATTORNEY VACANCIES

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are questioning the Justice Department about why 23 of the 93 U.S. attorney offices across the nation are vacant. The vacancies:

Albuquerque, N.M.

Anchorage, Alaska

Beaumont, Texas

Casper, Wyo.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Charleston, W.Va.

Fairview Heights, Ill.

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Knoxville, Tenn.

Las Vegas

Little Rock, Ark.

Los Angeles

Nashville, Tenn.

Omaha, Neb.

Phoenix

Portland, Maine

San Diego

San Francisco

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Savannah, Ga.

Seattle

Tampa, Fla.

Washington, D.C.

The Washington Times

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