WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey agreed Monday to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other officials involved in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys broke the law.
The move comes at the request of Justice Department's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, who in a report released Monday detailed "substantial evidence" that partisan politics played a role in several of the ousters.
Gonzales "abdicated his responsibility to safeguard the integrity and independence of the department," said a statement from Inspector General Glenn Fine's office.
Mukasey appointed acting veteran federal prosecutor and acting Connecticut U.S. attorney Nora Dannehy to oversee the inquiry, virtually guaranteeing that the 18-month investigation will continue into the next administration.
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Several of the prosecutors who were fired said they were pleased that the investigation would continue despite resistance from some administration officials.
"This report corroborates what my colleagues and I have been saying for the last 18 months: that the basis for our removal was improper, wrongful and now possibly criminal," said David Iglesias, the ousted U.S. attorney in New Mexico.
Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility found the removal of Iglesias to be the most "troubling" example of the Department inappropriately weighing political considerations.
In their 358-page report, Fine and Jarrett concluded that White House officials were more involved in the firings than the administration initially admitted. However, their report said that investigators were impeded from resolving questions about the White House's actions because several former and current Bush aides, including former presidential political adviser Karl Rove, refused to cooperate with his investigation.
Their report recommended that Mukasey appoint a prosecutor who'd have the authority to demand more evidence from officials and determine whether lawmakers or former or current administration officials lied to Congress or obstructed justice.
George J. Terwilliger III, the lawyer representing Gonzales, asserted that the report "makes clear" that Gonzales did nothing wrong.
"It seems rather odd, then, that rather than bring the investigation to a close, the Department would escalate the matter to the attention of a prosecutor," he said.
However, Mukasey, who took the helm of the Justice Department after Gonzales resigned a year ago amid the controversy, acknowledged that key questions remain unanswered.
"The report makes plain that, at a minimum, the process by which nine U.S. attorneys were removed in 2006 was haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional, and the way in which the Justice Department handled those removals and the resulting public controversy was profoundly lacking," Mukasey said.
The controversy was sparked by the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys and a little-noticed change in the Patriot Act that allowed the Justice Department to install replacements without seeking congressional approval.
Congressional Democrats launched an investigation into the firings after they grew suspicious that the prosecutors had been ousted because several had either investigated voter fraud allegations or politicians on corruption charges.
Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the report's findings "disturbing" and assailed the White House for "stonewalling" the inspector general, as it has defied congressional subpoenas.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, praised Mukasey for appointing a prosecutor to investigate. "Wherever the facts lead," he said, "it warrants further investigation."
Initially, the Justice Department denied that any of the firings was politically motivated. Then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified before Congress that all of the prosecutors were fired for "performance reasons," except for Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, whom he said was ousted to make way for Rove protege Tim Griffin. McClatchy, however, later revealed that most of the prosecutors had received positive performance reviews.
But Iglesias contended he'd been pressured by New Mexico Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson to speed up an indictment against local Democrats before the 2006 congressional election. While both lawmakers acknowledged calling Iglesias to ask about the case, they've denied pressuring him improperly.
Justice Department investigators found evidence to conclude that Iglesias was fired because Domenici and other Republican Party activists complained to the White House about his handling of the corruption case and separate voter fraud allegations.
In a statement Monday, Domenici's lawyer, K. Lee Blalack, said the report provided "no credible basis" to conclude that the senator interfered with or obstructed Iglesias' investigations.
Former Gonzales aide Kyle Sampson had drafted a letter saying that the department had no knowledge of Rove's role in the firings, but after a report by McClatchy, the White House acknowledged that Rove served as a conduit for complaints to the Justice Department about federal prosecutors not being aggressive enough in pursuing allegations of Democratic election fraud.
Monday's report reveals that Rove was aware that Iglesias was going to be fired even before the Justice Department sent its final firing list to the White House.
The investigators also pointed to the firing of Todd Graves, the former U.S. Attorney in Kansas City, Mo., as potentially motivated by partisan politics. The report concludes that Graves was likely singled out because of pressure from the office of Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, who was feuding with Graves' brother, a Republican congressman in Missouri.
"It also appears that no one considered whether Graves was an effective U.S. attorney before seeking his removal," the report said.
While John McKay, the former U.S. attorney in Washington state, probably was singled out for his disagreement with Justice Department officials over a law enforcement program, investigators couldn't rule out that he also was targeted for declining to prosecute allegations of Democratic voting fraud.
Fine and Jarrett, however, said they didn't find any reason to believe that U.S Attorneys Carol Lam of San Diego and Paul Charlton of Arizona were forced out because they investigated Republican politicians.
Their report pins much of the blame on Gonzales, who the report said was "remarkably unengaged" and failed to take action on behalf of Iglesias even "when he had notice that partisan politics might be involved."
The report also takes Gonzales to task for "inaccurate and misleading" statements and said he'd determined that Sampson was the "person most responsible" for the firing plan.
Bradford Berenson, Sampson's attorney, said he found it "mystifying and disappointing that the Inspector General chose to impugn" Sampson when his client had cooperated.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a former U.S. attorney, said Mukasey "has an important decision to make about the extent to which he is going to back his department and force the production of this information or allow the department to be rolled by the White House."
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