- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An internal investigation concluded Monday that senior Justice Department officials improperly allowed politics to influence the firings of several U.S. attorneys and then made misleading statements in the controversy’s aftermath, prompting Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to name an outside prosecutor to determine whether the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s law had committed crimes of its own.

Mr. Mukasey criticized his own department’s handling of the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 as “haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional” and named acting Connecticut U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy to investigate whether the Justice Department, the White House or congressional officials broke any laws.

The extraordinary appointment was made in response to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) that concluded that there was “significant evidence” that politics was involved in the firings.

The long-awaited report harshly criticized Mr. Mukasey’s predecessor as attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, saying he was “remarkably unengaged” in the department’s firing of federal prosecutors and “bears primary responsibility” for the bungled dismissals.

“In short, we believe that senior department officials - particularly the attorney general and the deputy attorney - abdicated their responsibility to safeguard the integrity and independence of the department by failing to ensure that the removal of U.S. attorneys was not based on improper political considerations,” the report said.

The report also questioned the honesty of explanations that Mr. Gonzales and other senior Justice officials gave after controversy erupted over the firings.

“After the removals became public the statements provided by the attorney general and other Department officials about the reasons for the removals were inconsistent, misleading, and inaccurate in many respects,” the report concluded.

Miss Dannehy, an experienced prosecutor and veteran of high-profile corruption cases, was asked to report the progress of her investigation to the attorney general within two months. She led the successful corruption prosecution of former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, in 2004.

Fallout from the firings last year led to the resignation of Mr. Gonzales and more than a dozen other Justice Department officials.

The report stopped short of concluding that any crimes had occurred but recommended the appointment of a prosecutor to determine whether offenses such as wire fraud or obstruction of justice had taken place.

The IG and OPR said an appointed prosecutor could conduct a more extensive investigation because several officials have refused to cooperate in other probes.

The report says that the White House refused to turn over internal documents about the firings and that several officials would not submit to interviews, including Monica Goodling, former White House liaison for the Justice Department; former White House officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers; and Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican.

According to the report, those four officials were involved in the “most troubling” dismissal - the removal of former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.

Despite Justice Department assertions that Mr. Iglesias was fired because of his job performance, the report concluded that he was removed because New Mexico Republicans complained to the White House and Justice Department about his handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases.

Mr. Iglesias said Mr. Domenici pressured him to bring corruption charges against a Democratic state lawmaker before the 2006 election. Mr. Domenici, who is retiring from the Senate because of health problems, has acknowledged calling Mr. Iglesias but said he did not pressure him to bring an indictment.

U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees who can be removed for any reason at any time. But the IG concluded that U.S. attorneys cannot be removed as a way of influencing a case or an election. According to the IG’s office, that could be a criminal offense.

The report said the IG/OPR investigation could not determine the full role of the White House in the firings but concluded that it was involved in three of the nine dismissals, including that of H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, who was U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. The report concluded that Mr. Cummins was removed so that his position could be given to Tim Griffin, who had worked as an aide to Mr. Rove.

The report also concludes that even with the involvement of White House and other officials, the greatest blame for the dismissals belongs to Mr. Gonzales. It said he was unengaged in the process of the dismissals, leaving the details to his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. The report also accused Mr. Gonzales of making misleading and inaccurate statements after the firings.

Attorneys for Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Sampson challenged the report’s conclusions.

“It is mystifying and disappointing that the inspector general chose to impugn Mr. Sampson’s candor and integrity when, virtually alone among significant participants in this matter, Mr. Sampson at all times cooperated fully and voluntarily with any and all investigators,” attorney Bradford Berenson said.

Mr. Gonzales’ attorney questioned the need for an appointed prosecutor.

“The report makes clear that Judge Gonzales engaged in no wrongful or improper conduct while recognizing, as he has acknowledged many times, that the process for evaluating U.S. attorney performance in this instance was flawed,” attorney George J.Terwilliger III said.

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