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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) remains unsatisfied with the Bush administration’s response to her concerns over the recent dismissal of as many as seven U.S. district attorneys around the country, including the prosecutor who won the conviction of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).
Feinstein said on Wednesday that her worries remained after a testy conversation Tuesday with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
“We sort of had a little discussion and mixed it up a little bit,” Feinstein explained, though she did not elaborate on the conversation’s details.
Feinstein has accused the Bush administration of dismissing various prosecutors, including San Diego District Attorney Carol Lam, without cause. She and several Judiciary Committee Democrats, including Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), worry that the administration is attempting to circumvent the Senate confirmation process by using an obscure provision of the newly reauthorized USA PATRIOT Act to install interim U.S. attorneys, perhaps political friends, indefinitely.
Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling strongly denied any such allegations in a Jan. 16 letter to Feinstein and Leahy and said that any vacancies were part of normal staff turnover. “Please be assured that United States Attorneys never are removed, or asked or encouraged to resign, in an effort to retaliate against them or interfere with or inappropriately influence a particular investigation, criminal prosecution or civil case,” the letter stated.
In an Associated Press interview Tuesday, Gonzales said the Justice Department is “fully committed to ensuring that with respect to every position we have a Senate-confirmed, presidentially appointed U.S. attorney.”
“We in no way politicize these decisions,” he added.
But in what promises to be one of many showdowns between Congressional Democrats and the Bush administration, Leahy and Feinstein intend to grill Gonzales on the issue at a Judiciary Committee hearing today. Several Judiciary Democrats, who met Wednesday to plot strategy and discuss scheduling, said they were concerned about the appearance of undue political influence on the legal process.
“As a former prosecutor, I can’t believe they would give more power to the administration to interfere with prosecutions,” Leahy stated.
Added Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin: “I think the independence of the U.S. attorney’s office is something of major concern” to committee Democrats.
News of the dismissal of various prosecutors around the country from California to Arkansas has been slowly trickling out in state media reports. But Feinstein raised the issue on the Senate floor Tuesday when she proposed an amendment to Senate ethics legislation that would return power over the appointment of interim district attorneys to district courts.
Feinstein expressed concern that the dismissals, which she pegged as somewhere between five and 10, were not made for any known reasons of alleged misconduct. She singled out the dismissal of San Diego Attorney General Carol Lam, who prosecuted the Cunningham case, as particularly worrisome.
“To my knowledge, there are no allegations of misconduct having to do with Carol Lam. She is a distinguished former judge. Rather, the only explanation I have seen are concerns that were expressed about prioritizing public corruption cases over smuggling and gun cases,” Feinstein said.