Former Justice Official Offers Praise for Fired Prosecutors

Posted May 3, 2007 at 1:13pm

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey issued glowing praise for seven of the eight U.S. attorneys summarily fired by the Justice Department in 2006, undercutting the department’s argument that they were fired for “performance-related” reasons.

In testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law on Thursday morning, Comey said morale in the department has been severely damaged by the unfolding scandal.

“I think folks are having a tough time,” said Comey, who now serves as general counsel for Lockheed Martin. “This is tough period for the Department of Justice.”

Lawmakers hoped Comey, the former No. 2 at Justice who served from December 2003 to August 2005, could shed light on why eight federal prosecutors were ousted last year. Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said he signed off on the firings but was not involved in the details of the dismissal process, which has prompted several lawmakers to call for his own ouster.

But Comey said he was unaware of any list of weak performers being compiled by ex-Gonzales Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson. In February 2005, he did offer Sampson his own list of underperformers, but his picks were at odds with the department’s own list except for one prosecutor: San Francisco U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, who Comey conceded had “management challenges.”

Furthermore, Comey said allegations that an ex-Justice Department staffer may have hired federal prosecutors based on political affiliation was the “most serious thing I’ve heard in the entire controversy.”

Comey termed as “serious” charges that Monica Goodling may have used prohibited criteria in evaluating job candidates in the offices of interim and acting U.S. attorneys. Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility and its inspector general are probing the matter.

“I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle,” Comey testified, referring to the use of such criteria.

Goodling — the former counsel to Gonzales as well as Justice’s White House liaison — resigned from the department as the U.S. attorney scandal evolved. She has asserted her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, but the House Judiciary Committee voted to give her immunity in order to compel her testimony though it is unclear if and when she will come forward.

Comey’s friendly reception on the Hill was a stark departure in tone from past grillings of senior Justice Department officials, including Gonzales.

Democrats seemed to welcome Comey’s candor, while subcommittee ranking member Chris Cannon (R-Utah) described the process by which the prosecutors were fired as “fairly thoughtful” and “competent.”

Comey refused to comment on whether he thought Gonzales should keep his job and said he never had any conversations with anyone in the White House regarding personnel issues. Democrats have authorized subpoenas for ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers and presidential aide Karl Rove, who they believe played substantial roles in the firings.

Comey gave stellar recommendations to most of the prosecutors who were axed by the Justice Department.

Though he had spoken with San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam about her scant number of gun prosecutions, he described Lam as a “fine” U.S. attorney who was never “insubordinate” to the Justice Department hierarchy. He said he never talked to Lam regarding concerns about her office’s number of immigration prosecutions, an issue that has been raised by Gonzales and Sampson as the reason for Lam’s dismissal.

Comey issued particularly effusive praise of former Washington state U.S. Attorney John McKay, ex-Nevada prosecutor Daniel Bogden and former Arizona prosecutor Paul Charlton.

“John McKay was one of my favorites. He was a very charming, passionate person,” Comey. “I worked with him pretty closely. I was inspired by him.”

Comey described Bogden as a “very smart, honest and able person.”

“I thought he was a very good U.S. attorney. He was straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy.”

As for Charlton, Comey called him a “very strong U.S. attorney, one of the best.”

He also praised the job performance of ousted New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias, who has accused New Mexico lawmakers of interfering in a corruption probe of local Democrats.

He issued effusive praise for his friend, former Illinois prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who was rated as an average prosecutor on one Justice Department list while the firings were being considered.

“I never thought much of him,” Comey at first quipped, to laughter from the committee. He then described Fitzgerald, appointed special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak case, as “one of the finest federal prosecutors that there is.”

In an e-mail exchange with ex-Arkansas prosecutor Bud Cummins III released by the committee, Comey described himself as “pained” by the entire controversy.

“You’re a good man and have handled this maelstrom with great dignity,” Comey wrote in a March 7 e-mail to Cummins. “Watching it causes me great pain, for the U.S. [attorneys], whom I respect, and the Department, which I love.

“Regardless, I will not sit by and watch good people smeared.”