- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Democrats think the escalating uproar over President Bush’s firings of eight U.S. attorneys has handed them a weapon they have long sought — evidence his administration improperly allowed politics to trump the law.

There are a couple of problems: The evidence is largely circumstantial and the proof is missing.

Behind the furor is the simple but as-yet-unanswered question of whether the prosecutors — including one ousted after declining to investigate a disputed Democratic electoral victory, a pair pushed out after pursuing investigations of Republican congressmen, and another gone after he was criticized for not indicting Democrats — were targeted for failing to use their posts to benefit the GOP. Democrats charge that’s exactly what happened.

The White House and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose battle to keep his job in the furor over the firings now depends partly on his ability to explain them, has said politics played no role.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, told ABC on Sunday that Mr. Gonzales — who is to testify before the Senate next week — essentially will have to try to prove a negative: that the ousters weren’t based on political-corruption cases.

Lawmakers and the public may never know who is right.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees chosen by the president. He can name and fire them at will for any reason — or none at all. Still, Republicans and Democrats alike agree their work should be apolitical, and their prosecutorial decisions unfettered by political pressure.

The case of San Diego’s former federal prosecutor, Carol Lam, has attracted particular attention because of the timing of discussions about her ouster.

Mrs. Lam, who oversaw a bribery case against now-imprison former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, had just alerted the Justice Department to new search warrants in that case last May when Mr. Gonzales’ then-top aide contacted the White House about replacing her. The same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles had opened an investigation of Rep. Jerry Lewis that was connected to the Cunningham case.

But Justice Department documents released last month show Mrs. Lam landed on a target list long before, because of what administration officials have described as her office’s lax record on immigration enforcement. They’ve said they were pleased with Mrs. Lam’s work on the Cunningham case.

John McKay, the fired Seattle prosecutor, had declined to investigate charges of voter fraud in the disputed 2004 gubernatorial election that put Democrat Christine Gregoire in the governor’s mansion. Mr. McKay has said an aide to Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington called to ask about the investigation. The prosecutor said he cut the aide off before he could make an improper inquiry, he told Congress.

Arizona’s Paul Charlton was ousted in the wake of reports he was investigating Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe’s contacts with underage congressional pages and a land deal by another Republican, Rep. Rick Renzi.

Bush administration officials initially called the eight poor performers, although most of them ranked high among their peers in an analysis of prosecutions and convictions. Later, Justice officials provided different reasons: Mr. McKay pushed for an information system headquarters did not want, and Mr. Charlton defied superiors on a death-penalty case and taped confessions in child-molestation cases in violation of department policy.

Regardless of the role of politics in the dismissals, Mr. Gonzales could lose his job in the flap and the White House could face further consequences based purely on their botched handling of the crisis, according to legal scholars.

“I don’t think they’ll even get to the question of were they really fired to affect political cases. People will say: ‘You’ve so … created doubts about your credibility that you can’t possibly stay,’ ” said Bruce Fein, a senior Justice Department official under President Reagan.

“We’ll never know for sure what some of these motivations were. It truly has moved beyond that,” added George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “That was the first alarm, but now this is a four-alarm fire.”

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