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Democrats to Press Gonzales on Dismissals

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.

Feinstein also hinted that Lam’s office may be prosecuting other Congressional misdeeds, though she did not elaborate. The only other known investigation into a California Member is one involving Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), whose relationship with the lobbying firm of ex-Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.) is being probed by the Justice Department as an outgrowth of the investigation of jailed ex-Rep. Cunningham.

“As a matter of fact, the rumor has it — and this is only rumor — that U.S. Attorney Lam, who carried out the prosecution of the Duke Cunningham case, has other cases pending whereby, rumor has it, Members of Congress have been subpoenaed,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor. “I have also been told that this interrupts the flow of the prosecution of these cases, to have the present U.S. attorney be forced to resign by the end of this month.”

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) wrote a Jan. 17 letter to Gonzales saying they were “perplexed” at Lam’s removal.

Lam confirmed Jan. 16 that she will be leaving her position effective Feb. 15. “I thank the President for giving me the opportunity to serve,” she said in a statement.

Feinstein cited seven other instances in which U.S. attorneys have recently been dismissed. They include Lam, and U.S. Attorneys Kevin Ryan of San Francisco, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada, Bud Cummins III of Arkansas, John McKay of Washington and Paul Charlton of Arizona. Besides Lam, none of the prosecutors is involved in identified Congressional cases.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Wednesday that there was no intent whatsoever to circumvent the confirmation process.

“It is our intention, and in our vested interest, to have a U.S. attorney that is Senate confirmed in every single district,” Roehrkasse said. “The use of the appointment authority is in no way an attempt to circumvent the confirmation process.”

The Justice Department maintains there are about 8 to 15 vacancies in district attorney positions at any given time. They acknowledged 11 current vacancies since the USA PATRIOT Act was amended to give the Justice Department interim appointment authority. Five nominations have been made, and Justice is interviewing six other candidates.

The dismissal of Lam, whom Bush appointed in 2002, may prove the most controversial. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, prosecutors in her office were shocked by the news. Officials cited by the newspaper said she was asked to step down because she did not make smuggling and gun cases a high priority. The newspaper reported that prosecutions under Lam have plummeted from 5,266 in 2001, the year before she stepped in, to 3,261 cases in 2005.

Arkansas Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln are upset that Cummins, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Arkansas, was asked to leave. He was replaced by Tim Griffin, a former Republican National Committee operative, who some Democrats complain lacks legal experience. Cummins announced his resignation in June, and Griffin was sworn-in in December.

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