As the scandal over the firing of a select group of U.S. attorneys was building two weeks ago, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department tried to persuade one of those being removed that Washington was not out to ruin their reputations.
According to new documents released Monday, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty told Margaret M. Chiara of Grand Rapids, Mich., that “our only choice is to continue to be truthful about the entire matter,” and in an e-mail sought to explain the official Bush administration position that the eight federal prosecutors were being let go for performance reasons.
“The word ‘performance’ obviously has not set well with you and your colleagues,” McNulty conceded. “By that word we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management/leadership that we felt were important to the department’s effectiveness.”
Chiara was complaining vigorously that she was not being given a reasonable answer for her termination. McNulty’s attempts to calm the prosecutor came as the other U.S. attorneys were about to testify before Senate and House committees that they were not given sound reasons for their dismissals.
Chiara’s complaints and McNulty’s e-mail were found in more than 3,000 pages of new documents delivered late Monday night by the Justice Department to congressional panels, about 1,000 of which were made public. The remaining pages are expected to be made public today.
The documents show that Justice Department officials have been scrambling over the last two months to control the amount of damaging fallout and negative publicity from the widening scandal, even lamenting at one point that “we just want the stories to die.”
Testimony on March 6 from the dismissed U.S. attorneys prompted charges from Democrats that the firings were politically motivated, and it has led to repeated calls for the resignations of McNulty and his boss, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales.
On Monday, names began surfacing as possible replacements for Gonzales as speculation increased that he would not be in the post much longer.
People close to the administration said that any list of possible candidates would include Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Larry D. Thompson, the deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft; and Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor general under Ashcroft.
Others speculated that Bush might turn to a former senator in the hope of ensuring an easy confirmation. They said in that event, the president might consider John C. Danforth, the former ambassador to the United Nations and onetime Republican senator from Missouri, and actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican.
Tasia Scolinos, spokeswoman at the Justice Department, called the large document release a “virtually unprecedented step” by officials besieged with questions about whether politics were the true motivation behind the firings.
“The department did not remove the U.S. attorneys for improper reasons such as to prevent or retaliate for a particular prosecution in a public corruption matter,” she said.
Indeed, some of the documents show Justice Department officials discussing individual problems with the various fired prosecutors.
They were critical of Paul Charlton in Phoenix because he wanted to change Gonzales’ mind about a death penalty case in Arizona.
They were upset with Daniel G. Bogden in Las Vegas for not bringing enough obscenity prosecutions. McNulty said in an e-mail two days before the firings that he had second thoughts about Bogden.
“I’m still a little skittish about Bogden ... I’ll admit (I) have not looked at his district’s performance.”
The documents also show that Washington officials were frustrated with Carol C. Lam of San Diego and David C. Iglesias of Albuquerque for not doing more on border crime cases.
Although some of the documents seemed to buttress statements by the Justice Department that the dismissals were for legitimate performance reasons, they did little to quell speculation that Gonzales was on the way out.
The White House denied a report on the website politico.com that Republican Party operatives had been dispatched by the administration to start identifying possible successors to Gonzales.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the report was “not accurate.”
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, “We hope he stays.”
Just as Gonzales and McNulty are fighting for their jobs, so too was Chiara -- remarkable in the number of letters and e-mails she sent to Washington demanding an explanation for why she was being forced out.
On Nov. 5, a month before she was formally notified along with others that she was being fired, Chiara e-mailed McNulty about her fears of being out of work with no job prospects.
“While I live in hope that this dire prediction is untrue, I am contacting you because I need assistance to remain in federal service with a comparable compensation or, quite frankly, I will lose everything I have been working toward for the past five years,” she told McNulty. “I trust that I can count on you to intervene or provide an alternative.”
Two days letter, on the morning of the midterm election, she again turned to McNulty.
“Paul,” she said in an e-mail. “As soon as the ‘election dust settles’ I ask that you tell me why my resignation may be requested. Since you have not taken exception to the [eventuality], I now assume that it is likely. I need to know the truth to live in peace with the aftermath.”
She and the others were formally notified of their terminations on Dec. 7. Late that afternoon Chiara again appealed to McNulty.
“The timing is surprising and distressing,” she said. " ... I deserve consideration and flexibility. My financial circumstances require continuous employment. I ask for your immediate assistance.”
Finally, McNulty responded with his explanation about performance-related reasons.
In his Feb. 6 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, McNulty repeated the performance-related explanation for the firings, but drew ire from committee Democrats who suspected politics was the underlying reason.
McNulty was quoted in news coverage of his testimony acknowledging that one of the fired attorneys, H.E. (Bud) Cummins III of Little Rock, was moved aside to make room for a protege of White House political advisor Karl Rove.
That prompted some at the Justice Department to hunker down.
“The attorney general is extremely upset with the stories on the U.S. Attys this morning,” Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman, e-mailed to his boss, Scolinos, and D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff before he abruptly resigned this month.
Roehrkasse added that Gonzales “also thought some of DAG’s [McNulty’s] statements were inaccurate.... He wants to know what we can do from a comms [communications] perspective. I suggested a clearly worded op-ed and reaching out to ed [editorial] boards who will write in the coming days.”
“I think from a straight news perspective we just want the stories to die.”
Gonzales did indeed write an op-ed piece for USA Today in which he contended that all eight of the prosecutors, including Cummins, were fired for performance reasons, contradicting McNulty.
Gonzales dismissed the whole flap as “an overblown personnel matter” -- a statement that was widely criticized by some members of Congress.
Scolinos also told Sampson that she “didn’t think the hearing had gone all that well” for the Justice Department.
But Sampson told Roehrkasse and Scolinos that McNulty felt good after testifying, and believed the matter was about over.
“He’s hearing good reports from the committee. In particular, Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer’s counsel told him that the issue has basically run its course, that they need to get a little more information from us ... but that will be it.”
It turned out that Capitol Hill Democrats were all the more incensed, and soon were calling for Gonzales to step down and for White House officials, including Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to testify.
With the scandal clearly not going away, Sampson then urged others at the department to try to get Cummins not to join other fired prosecutors in testifying on March 6. Cummins had warned officials that if called to Washington, he “would tell the truth about his circumstances” of being fired so Rove’s operative, Timothy Griffin, could take over in Little Rock.
“I don’t think he should” testify, Sampson said in an e-mail to McNulty and other top Justice Department officials.
Sampson wondered how Cummins would answer several key questions, such as why he was told he was being elbowed out, and whether Griffin expected to be appointed under a new provision of the Patriot Act that would allow him to skirt Senate confirmation.
“Were you asked to resign because you were underperforming?” Sampson said Cummins would be asked. “If not, then why?”
Times staff writers Tom Hamburger and David G. Savage contributed to this report.