A central question in the congressional investigation of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys is whether Carol C. Lam in San Diego was dismissed, and Debra Wong Yang in Los Angeles eased out, to try to derail corruption probes of prominent California Republicans.
Whatever officials in Washington might have intended, Yang and Lam’s departures had no effect on the investigations, which continue unabated, sources close to the inquiries said this week. And several present and former federal prosecutors said it would be extremely difficult -- though not impossible -- to quash an investigation for political reasons.
“Most criminal prosecutors are an independent sort with a strong sense of pursuing truth and justice,” said William W. Carter, a Los Angeles federal prosecutor for 14 years before moving to the firm Musick, Peeler & Garrett in November. “They would be repulsed, and rebel, against any political order. There would be an uproar.”
Although the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys are political appointees, their offices are staffed with career prosecutors who are tasked with pursuing justice without regard for any political agenda.
Those prosecutors -- assistant U.S. attorneys -- often come from top-flight law schools and see the job as a noble calling. Many of them could make much more money in private practice.
Calling a prosecutor off a case -- particularly if the motive were transparently political -- would cause an uproar, said Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Laurie L. Levenson. “You’d have to suspend reality to think you could get away with it,” she said.
The U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego is moving forward on the expanding investigation that netted Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), the sources said. And prosecutors in Los Angeles continue to examine Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) over various dealings with lobbyists and contractors during the time he was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Neither Lam nor Yang had direct involvement in the corruption investigations, the sources said. According to one source close to the Lewis inquiry, Yang never asked to be briefed by her prosecutors, nor did she give them any input. “It was just nothing ... which was good.”
The sources close to the probes requested anonymity because a Justice Department policy bars public comment on ongoing investigations.
Yang emphatically denied that she was pushed out or that she or her successor was asked to stop a politically charged investigation.
“You have so many players involved, it’s ridiculous that you could make an investigation disappear, especially one that is high profile -- because those are the ones all the assistants want to work on,” she said.
Levenson said there are subtle ways, however, to let a case “die a slow death.”
Supervisors could assign the prosecutors other matters to work on or divert resources away from the case. They could balk at issuing subpoenas or seeking approvals of various sorts from Washington. And when it comes time to seek an indictment, particularly if the case is not a slam-dunk, the U.S. attorney or even the Justice Department in Washington could waver and tell the prosecutors that they need to do more investigating.
Yet even this scenario is more likely to happen in a John Grisham novel than in real life, Levenson said.
Congressional investigators first focused on the possibility that Lam was fired because of the expanding Cunningham inquiry or the Lewis investigation. Although Lam’s office was not involved in the Lewis probe, those involved in the firings might not have known that because both cases involved the same prominent lobbyist, several prosecutors suggested.
Now some of the focus has shifted to Yang, with testimony indicating that the White House might have been looking to push her out.
In October 2006 -- less than two months before the firings -- Yang announced her resignation to take a job at the Los Angeles firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which was defending Lewis and has strong Republican ties. Her new salary is reportedly about $1.5 million a year.
Yang said at the time that, as a recently divorced mother of three, she needed to enter the private sector to support her family.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, was questioned Thursday about Yang’s resignation, but insisted that she left of her own accord.
But in recent testimony to congressional investigators, D. Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department aide who coordinated the firings, said the White House had inquired in September about pushing Yang out to “create a vacancy.”
“I remember [White House Counsel] Harriet Miers asking me about Debra Yang ... and what her plans were, whether she might be asked to resign,” Sampson told investigators last month, according to a senior congressional aide.
An opinion piece by a New York Times editorial editor, Adam Cohen, suggested that Gibson Dunn might have lured Yang away with the rich salary offer to get her off the Lewis investigation.
Gibson Dunn lawyers took offense at the suggestion.
“It’s absurd,” said Randy Mastro, co-chairman of the firm’s crisis management group with Yang.
It was well known that Yang was looking for something new, he added, and at least three top firms were actively recruiting her.
As for her being pushed out, he said Yang notified Miers in January 2006 that she planned to leave by the end of summer.
Mastro would not comment specifically on the Lewis investigation.