Top official defends firing of U.S. attorneys


WASHINGTON – A senior Justice Department official acknowledged Tuesday that a top federal prosecutor in Arkansas was removed to make room for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove, but said that six other U.S. attorneys were fired for “performance-related” issues.

In often contentious testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty also disputed allegations from Democrats that the firings appeared to be aimed at rewarding GOP allies and avoiding the Senate’s role in confirming U.S. attorney appointments.

“The attorney general’s appointment authority has not and will not be used to circumvent the confirmation process,” McNulty said. “All accusations in this regard are contrary to the clear factual record.”

But McNulty’s remarks did little to calm the growing political storm over the recent U.S. attorney firings, which have prompted condemnations from top Democrats and have led to proposed legislation that would limit the attorney general’s powers to appoint interim prosecutors.

McNulty acknowledged that six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest were notified in December that they would be asked to step aside, including the lead prosecutor in San Diego, whose office oversaw the bribery conviction of a former Republican congressman.

A seventh former U.S. attorney, Ed Cummins, of Little Rock, has said that he was asked to leave last year to open the job for J. Timothy Griffin, who previously worked for Rove and for the Republican National Committee. McNulty did not dispute that characterization Tuesday.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the firings “reek of politics” and warned McNulty that the judiciary panel would consider issuing subpoenas for job evaluations of the fired prosecutors unless the Justice Department agrees to hand them over. Justice officials said they will work to accommodate the request.

“What happened here doesn’t sound like business as usual,” Schumer said. “Even the hiring and firing of our top federal prosecutors has become infused and corrupted with political, rather than prudent, considerations.”

McNulty responded later: “When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it’s like a knife in my heart. … Your perspective is completely contrary to my daily experience.”

Several top lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have been particularly angered by a little-noticed provision slipped into USA Patriot Act legislation last year that allows Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to appoint replacement prosecutors like Griffin indefinitely.


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