Sunday, February 25, 2007

Political Hiring, Political Firing

The fall-out from the forced resignations of eight US attorneys by the Justice Department continues. The administration is running out of excuses, according to this article in today's NY Times.

Internal Justice Department performance reports for six of the eight United States attorneys who have been dismissed in recent months rated them “well regarded,” “capable” or “very competent,” a review of the evaluations shows.

...Over all, the evaluations, which were obtained from officials authorized to have them, appear to raise new questions about the rationale for the dismissals provided by senior Justice Department officials. The officials have repeatedly cited poor job performance to explain their decisions to oust the eight prosecutors, all of them Republicans appointed by President Bush in his first term.

All eight US attorneys resigned, although it soon became clear that the resignations were forced. If there had been only one or two resignations, the issue probably would never have been noticed, but eight? Then, as news of the "resignations" surfaced, Justice Department officials justified the firings by claiming poor performance on the part of the US attorneys involved. The performance reviews released to the NY Times certainly seem to rebut that contention, although officials are offering new, weak excuses.

In response, a senior Justice Department official said the reviews, which focused on management practices within each United States attorney’s office, did not provide a broad or complete picture of the prosecutors’ performance.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of personnel information, said, “The reviews don’t take into account whether the U.S. attorneys carried out departmental priorities.”

Referring to the 94 United States attorney’s districts, the official said, “You can’t have 94 different sets of priorities,” suggesting that the dismissed prosecutors had failed to follow priorities set by the Justice Department in Washington.

However, each case report included a statement that each of the ousted prosecutors had established strategic goals set by the Justice Department in high priority areas like counterterrorism, narcotics and gun violence.
[Emphasis added]

US attorneys are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. As the article pointed out, all eight US attorneys forced to retire were Republican and had been appointed By President Bush in his first term. One is left wondering just why they had to go, especially with the kind of performance reviews each received.

Were they handling cases effectively that the administration didn't want coming to fruition? Ms. Lam of San Diego, one of the eight, had, after all, successfully investigated and secured the conviction of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham for bribery. Was there another Republican in her sites?

Or was it a matter of eight other people successfully buying the positions with hefty campaign contributions or work on behalf of the White House? The appointee for the vacant Arkansas slot certainly had the right connections with the White House, although the article makes it clear that he has since withdrawn his name from consideration.

These are the kinds of questions the committee chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer will hopefully be asking in the current hearings. Although the US attorney position is a political appointment, the cases handled by those people deal with serious matters for the nation. They shouldn't be fired for doing their jobs, or for not having the bought-and-paid-for connections.



Blogger GWPDA said...

The AZ US Attorney is defended by the newspaper. He was forced out:
A premium on principle

Feb. 17, 2007 12:00 AM
The controversy over the Bush administration's ouster of several U.S. attorneys across the West has cast an unfortunate cloud over the performance and character of Arizona's former top prosecutor, Paul Charlton.

The record needs to be set straight. President Bush has every right to choose who should serve in his administration, but Charlton's reputation has been left unfairly dangling in uncertainty and confusion.

A deputy attorney general, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, cited "performance-related reasons" for the forced resignations and removals of perhaps 10 attorneys general. That prompted Charlton to finally defend himself, weeks after he resigned.

"I left for principled reasons, not performance issues," Charlton said. He is now a partner in the prominent Phoenix firm of Gallagher and Kennedy.

Specifically, Charlton and U.S. Department of Justice disagreed on whether to pursue the death penalty in certain federal murder cases. Charlton sought the death penalty in some instances but entered plea agreements on others. The Justice Department has sought to centralize those decisions in Washington and to seek the death penalty more frequently.

Justice officials insist that policy needs to be set on a national level. "Individual U.S. attorneys around the country can't just make up their own policy agendas," one said.

That is certainly reasonable.

However, a president just doesn't choose a U.S. attorney to be a robot with a law degree. U.S. attorneys don't negotiate over a conference table or appear in a courtroom as decorative scenery, like a potted plant. Prosecutors have to consider the quality of the evidence, calculate likelihood of conviction and balance competing demands on resources.

Charlton is also known to have become frustrated by the FBI's refusal to tape confessions, a policy routinely utilized by police agencies throughout the nation.

Charlton chose to leave without fanfare, only speaking out when his professionalism was attacked. This is the mark of a public servant who acts with integrity and dignity. Charlton was appointed U.S. attorney by Bush in late 2001.

On any number of occasions, we have seen Charlton take principled, difficult stands. His office worked on a caseload that would bury other agencies. As one former U.S. Department of Justice official said, Charlton was "one of the stars of the U.S. attorney community."

When respected appointees like Charlton leave so abruptly - or are shown the door - without explanation, it undermines public confidence in the system.

Events of the past two months have had that sad effect.

9:39 AM  
Blogger shrimplate said...

I e-mailed the guy who wrote the Arizona Republic article about Charleton and I get a reply that glossed over some old cases in which Charleton only got about 50 low-level drug-smugglers put away, and the going talking-point about Charleton not prosecuting death-penalty cases fast enough.

Tap dancing.

Let's just call it like it is. You know, Occam's Razor and all that. He was ousted to give Rick Rienzi a break from the expected indictments announced last fall concerning quid-pro-quo legislation that benfitted his father's business in southern Arizona.

This all stinks. What kind of toadies are going to replace, permanently avoiding the Senate vetting process, these prosecutors who were just doing their jobs?

8:25 PM  

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