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E-mails detail goals in firing U.S. attorneys

Times Staff Writer

Just weeks after President Bush was inaugurated for a second term in January 2005, his White House and the Justice Department had pretty much settled on a plan to “push out” some of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys.

But which ones?

D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, came up with a checklist. He rated each of the prosecutors with criteria that appeared to value political allegiance as much as job performance.

He recommended retaining “strong U.S. attorneys who have ... exhibited loyalty to the president and attorney general.” He suggested “removing weak U.S. attorneys who have ... chafed against administration initiatives.”

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Those words are enshrined in some 150 pages of e-mails and other documents the White House turned over Tuesday to the Senate and House Judiciary committees. The panels are looking into allegations that the firings were motivated by political reasons rather than the prosecutors’ performance, as the Justice Department has said.

The documents offer an extraordinary look at political tactics within the Bush administration, and show the White House working closely with the Justice Department to justify the firings. The administration even adopted contingency plans for how to “quiet” anyone who complained. And it was the administration that gave the final go-ahead to fire eight prosecutors, all of them Bush appointees.

The documents show that in one case, officials were eager to free up the prosecutor’s slot in Little Rock, Ark., so it could be filled by Timothy Griffin, a GOP operative close to White House political advisor Karl Rove, at all costs.

“We should gum this to death,” Sampson e-mailed Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House. He said officials should talk up Griffin’s appointment and try to “forestall” any criticism from Capitol Hill. Just “run out the clock” on any objections, he said.

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Elsewhere, the documents describe the office of Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who was pushing for the removal of the prosecutor in Albuquerque, as “happy as a clam” that David C. Iglesias was fired.

But the material also noted that Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) was “very unhappy” about the ouster of U.S. Atty. Daniel G. Bogden of Las Vegas and “didn’t understand the urgency.”

It also made clear that in San Diego, U.S. Atty. Carol Lam was fired for not being tougher on illegal immigration. Sampson told White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley that the Justice Department had a “real problem” with Lam. He later asked acting Associate Atty. Gen. William Mercer whether officials “ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement.”

The disclosure of Sampson’s aggressive role in the episodes came as Gonzales announced Tuesday that Sampson was stepping down as chief of staff. Sampson had worked for Gonzales at the White House and in the attorney general’s office.

His dual role -- like Gonzales’ -- in wearing both White House and Justice Department hats made him a pivotal character in the way prosecutors were selected for removal and their firings were handled, and in how the department tried to calm allegations of improper political influence.

Indeed, even as he was orchestrating the removal of the prosecutors, Sampson reportedly was hoping to land back in his home state of Utah as a U.S. attorney, although the prosecutor there was not among those fired.

Initially, Sampson and then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers mused about firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, wiping the slate clean and replacing them with new appointees at the start of Bush’s second term. Such a broad gesture would have sprinkled political gratitude to operatives like Griffin of Arkansas, who had worked in the 2004 campaign, they thought.

But they soon backed off that idea as too disruptive. So they began making lists of individuals, and eventually settled on eight.

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In January 2006, Sampson sent a confidential memo to Miers and Kelley, outlining options.

He suggested that once the prosecutors were told they were being fired, the Justice Department “could work quietly with the targeted U.S. attorneys to encourage them to leave government service voluntarily.”

“This,” he said, “would allow targeted U.S. attorneys to make arrangements for work in the private sector and ‘save face’ regarding the reason for leaving office.”

Meanwhile, the administration was slowly gathering evidence to make its move.

In July, for instance, a Justice Department official advised the White House that U.S. Atty. Paul Charlton in Arizona was not prosecuting marijuana cases involving less than 500 pounds. His stance had riled then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

In September, Brent Ward, head of the Justice Department’s obscenity task force, complained to Sampson about Charlton and Bogden.

“We have two U.S. attorneys who are unwilling to take good cases we have presented to them,” Ward told Sampson. “This is urgent.” Ward added that he found this particularly troubling “in light of the AG’s [Gonzales’] comment ... to ‘kick butt and take names’ ” in prosecuting obscenity cases.

In New Mexico, Domenici was regularly complaining about Iglesias. He made numerous calls to the White House and the Justice Department, and even phoned Iglesias to inquire about a seemingly stalled corruption investigation against Democrats in New Mexico.

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Domenici has since said he regretted making the call to Iglesias, but that incident most enraged Democrats on Capitol Hill.

“Sen. Domenici called for the AG [Gonzales] because he wants to discuss the criminal ‘docket and caseload’ in New Mexico,” William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general, recounted in an e-mail to White House and Justice officials. “Sen. Domenici offered to come here, talk on the phone, or we could stop in on the senator.”

Later, when Iglesias was one of those fired, Domenici moved quickly to recommend names to the White House for his replacement. “Not even waiting for Iglesias’ body to cool,” Sampson commented in an e-mail to Goodling seven days after the firing.

On Sept. 13, a Sampson e-mail listed which prosecutors would be leaving under the headline, “USA [U.S. Attorney] in the Process of Being Pushed Out.” He added that “it will be counterproductive to DOJ operations if we push USAs out and then don’t have replacements ready to roll.”

There was some discussion of adding a ninth name -- Gretchen C.F. Shappert of North Carolina -- but it was dropped after Goodling said, “I don’t think she merits being included in that group at this time.”

On Dec. 4, the day officials were given the “go” for the firings, Sampson told the White House “we need to get some names generated pronto” for replacement prosecutors.

The next day, he devised a plan where White House and Justice Department officials would call lawmakers the morning of Dec. 7 to notify them the U.S. attorneys in their states were being fired. Meanwhile, Michael A. Battle, who until his resignation this month supervised U.S. attorneys, would phone the prosecutors in the afternoon to give them the bad news.

Sampson also worked up talking points for the group firing. Senators and “Bush political leaders” were to be told that “the administration has determined to give someone else the opportunity to serve as U.S. attorney for the final two years of the administration.”

The fired prosecutors would be told that the administration would help them in future endeavors. “We will work with you to make sure that there is a smooth transition,” they were to be advised.

Sampson’s memo also warned: “Prepare to withstand political upheaval.” He said, “U.S. attorneys desiring to save their jobs likely will make efforts to preserve themselves in office. We should expect these efforts to be strenuous.”

Indeed, most of the ousted prosecutors were stunned. Fanning their ire was a perceived threat by the Justice Department that they not complain about it.

On Dec. 13, Sampson again e-mailed top Justice Department and White House officials that things were not going well. “In making the calls,” Sampson said, “Battle wasn’t clear whether the USAs in question would be permitted to resign, or instead were being fired, and was too abrupt.”

Sampson thought there should be “perhaps a second round of calls.” This time, he suggested, Battle should tell them:

“It’s in our interest for you to land on your feet and maintain

richard.serrano@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Inquiry puts pressure on Gonzales

--

The White House turned over e-mails and memos about plans to fire U.S. attorneys. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, above, responded to allegations that the firings were based on politics not performance. In the first e-mail, Gonzales’ chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, explains his method of determining who should be fired. In the second, White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley confirms the plan.

(END TEXT OF INFOBOX))


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