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Special Prosecutor Named in Attorney Firings Case
"Our investigation found significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several . . . U.S. attorneys."
An internal Justice Department investigation concluded Monday that political pressure drove the firings of several federal prosecutors in a 2006 purge, but said that the refusal of major players at the White House and the department to cooperate in the year-long inquiry produced significant “gaps” in its understanding of the events.
At the urging of the investigators, who said they did not have enough evidence to justify recommending criminal charges in the case, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey appointed the Acting United States Attorney in Connecticut, Nora Dannehy, to continue the inquiry and determine whether anyone should be prosecuted.
The 356-page report, prepared by the department’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility, provides the fullest picture to date of an episode that opened the Bush administration up to charges of politicizing the justice system. The firings of nine federal prosecutors, and the Congressional hearings they generated, ultimately led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last September.
The investigation, which uncovered White House e-mail messages not previously made public, offered a blistering critique of Mr. Gonzales’s management of the department. It called Mr. Gonzales “remarkably unengaged” in overseeing an unprecedented personnel review, and said that he “abdicated” his administrative responsibilities, leaving those duties to his chief of staff. It said that the process for deciding which prosecutors were fired was “fundamentally flawed.”
More troubling, the investigation concluded that, despite the denials of the administration at the time of the controversy, political considerations played a part in the firings of at least four of the nine prosecutors.
The most serious case, the report said, was the firing of David Iglesias, the former United States Attorney for New Mexico, who had tangled with two of his state’s leading Republican lawmakers, Senator Pete Domenici and Representative Heather A. Wilson, over what they saw as his slow response to voter fraud and political corruption accusations against Democrats in New Mexico.
“We concluded,” the inquiry said, “that complaints from New Mexico Republican politicians and party activists to the White House and the Department about Iglesias’s handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases led to his removal.”
But in looking into the Iglesias firing and others, investigators were hampered by the refusal of the White House to turn over internal documents and to make some major figures available for interviews. Investigators interviewed some 90 people, but three administration officials who played a part in crucial phases of the firing plan — Karl Rove, the former political advisor to President Bush; Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel; and Monica M. Goodling, former Justice Department liaison to the White House — all refused to be interviewed.
It was Ms. Miers who first proposed, after Mr. Bush’s re-election in 2004, that the administration consider firing all 93 federal prosecutors, and she helped oversee the process at the White House. The investigation found that Mr. Rove’s desire to see one of his deputies, Tim Griffin, installed as a United States Attorney led directly to the firing of Bud Cummins, the chief federal prosecutor in Arkansas.
The inquiry also focused on the efforts by Justice officials to tamp down the controversy in early 2007 through what the report concluded was a series of misleading and inaccurate statements to Congress and the press. Chief among them was the repeated claim that the prosecutors were fired for “performance” reasons after a careful review of formal evaluations. In fact, the report said, politics was the driving factor, and only two of the nine prosecutors had negative evaluations.
Mr. Mukasey, in announcing the appointment of an in-house prosecutor to continue the investigation, acknowledged that the process for firing the prosecutors was “haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional, and that the way in which the Justice Department handled those removals and the resulting public controversy was profoundly lacking.”
The fired prosecutors, he said, “did not deserve the treatment they received.”
The new prosecutor, Ms. Dannehy, has been the acting United States Attorney in Connecticut since April. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she has been a prosecutor for 17 years and specializes in white-collar and public corruption cases. She led the prosecution of Connecticut’s former governor John Rowland, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to accepting $107,000 in gifts.
Mr. Mukasey, who succeeded Mr. Gonzales and has sought to restore a measure of credibility to the department, said the report was “an important step toward acknowledging what happened and holding the responsible officials to proper account.”
While the inquiry will continue, Mr. Gonzales described the report as the closing chapter in the episode. “My family and I are glad to have the investigation of my conduct in this matter behind us and we look forward to moving on to new challenges,” he said in a statement.
His lawyer, George J. Terwilliger III, took issue with the decision by the department to “escalate the matter” by continuing the investigation. “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,” Mr. Terwilliger said.