By R Schmidt and J Rowley/ Bloomberg
Washington: President George W Bush offered embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales “strong backing,” the White House said on 20 March as the administration mounted a counterattack aimed at quelling the controversy over the firing of eight federal prosecutors.
Bush made an early phone call to Gonzales to express his support, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. “The president reaffirmed his strong backing of the attorney general” and there is no truth to reports the administration is looking for a replacement for Gonzales, she said. The president urged Gonzales to fight efforts to force him out, said a Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Late last night, the Justice Department gave Congress e-mails that show the fired US attorneys were the target of complaints and had policy disputes with officials in Washington. The counter offensive came as lawmakers continued to call for Gonzales, to step down and congressional investigations heated up. Two Democratic-controlled congressional committees are probing whether the administration acted out of political motives and used the firings to interfere with criminal investigations.
Among about 3,000 pages of Justice Department documents delivered to Congress last night were e-mails describing a feud between fired San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam and Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who complained that she hadn’t aggressively enforced immigration laws along the Mexican border.
Democrats have questioned whether Lam was fired for leading the investigation of Randall H “Duke” Cunningham, a former California Republican congressman who pleaded guilty to accepting millions of dollars in bribes to help companies get defense contracts.
A House Judiciary subcommittee announced plans to vote tomorrow to compel testimony by five current and former administration officials, including Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.
The latest batch of e-mails includes an exchange showing dismay in Washington that Kevin Ryan, former US attorney in San Francisco, had issued a note about new sentencing guidelines for possessing steroids. Ryan’s office investigated steroid use by athletes and whether San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds lied under oath to a grand jury.
“Not sure that this was particularly helpful,” Michael Elston, a Justice Department official wrote Ryan in an e-mail on 29 March, 06.
Elston complained that publicizing the “emergency” steroid guidelines issued by the US Sentencing Commission “actually harms our ability to ensure” they become permanent.
In Lam’s case, the documents included a heated correspondence she had with Issa over his charges that she wasn’t aggressive enough in prosecuting alien smuggling across one of the busiest parts of the US-Mexico border. A series of e-mails dealt with her response to an Associated Press report on May 2006 that US Border Patrol agents were “demoralized” and with Issa’s criticisms of her office on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”
In a memo to Gonzales on 23 May, Lam said a Border Patrol report cited by Issa in the broadcast “was actually an altered and unauthorized version of an actual intelligence report” that “contained editorial comments and conclusions that were never seen by or authorized by Border Patrol management.” Lam issued a statement saying that Issa “has been misled.”
Issa replied in a letter to Lam on 24 May, saying, “your statement misses the mark and exhibits a willful disregard” of smuggling cases that were never prosecuted.
Subject of Ridicule
Lam was the subject of ridicule in a e-mail written by William Mercer, then a deputy to Paul McNulty, the Justice Department’s second-ranking official on July 8, 2006.
Lam “just won’t say, OK. You got me. You’re right, I’ve ignored national priorities and obvious local needs. Shoot, my production is more hideous than I realized,”’ Mercer wrote to Elston, McNulty’s chief of staff.
“Carol Lam is sad,” Elston noted in his reply.
As per the report of an online service Politico.com, the administration was searching for replacements for Gonzales. Citing Republican “party sources,” it said the potential replacements for Gonzales include Homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff and Bush’s anti-terrorism coordinator Frances Townsend.
“I’ve checked into those rumors and they are untrue,” Perinosaid.
Bush has defended the firings while criticizing how Gonzales handled them. He said that he was “not happy about it” and directed Gonzales to explain himself to Congress.
Lawmakers in both parties complained that statements by Justice Department officials that the firings were due to poor performance had unfairly stained the reputations of the prosecutors.
In a statement, Roehrkasse explained that the cause of Gonzales’s consternation was his belief that Cummins was removed in part for “performance considerations” while McNulty had left the impression that Cummins was fired without cause.
While McNulty testified that the Justice Department asked most of the prosecutors to step down for unspecified performance reasons, he said Cummins was fired to create an opening for an ex-aide to Rove.
Another fired prosecutor, Margaret Chiara in Grand Rapids, Michigan, urged McNulty in an e-mail on 4 March to “reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis” for her dismissal. “Please simply state that a presidentially appointed position is not an entitlement,” she wrote.
McNulty replied that “we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management that we felt were important to the department’s effectiveness.”