By Freedom Newspapers
If a mid-level press officer had been more straightforward with the media last December when the Bush administration decided to fire eight of the country’s 93 U.S. attorneys, the simmering scandal over those fired attorneys might never have developed.
A spokesman might have said: “U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president; so, of course it’s a political move. We have some fine lawyers with great potential who would be better candidates for judgeships and other positions if they had a few years as U.S. attorney under their belts. We’re just trying to open up opportunities for some other people. We’ll help those who were dismissed to find other positions, but we think the more available people with obvious qualifications for higher positions the better.”
In fact, that seems to have been the primary motive for most of the firings. But, notably, some of those let go may have irritated higher-ups and some may not have been as aggressive as Republicans would have liked in pursuing corruption investigations into local Democrats. J. Timothy Griffin, now slated to be U.S. attorney for Arkansas, had worked for Karl Rove and has the appearance of a protégé being pushed forward.
For the most part, however, the best explanation seems to be what one senior official finally told Daniel Bogden, ousted as U.S. attorney in Nevada: “There is a window of opportunity to put candidates into an office like mine,” Bogden told the New York Times. “They were attempting to open a slot and bring someone else in.”
Instead of offering a candid explanation, however, Justice Department officials offered boilerplate language about performance concerns, which had the effect of besmirching the reputations of the eight. “These decisions were based on individual concerns about each U.S. attorney’s overall performance,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. “This included ineffectively prosecuting departmental priority areas, failure to follow departmental guidelines, or just overall concerns.”
However, all the departed officials had received sterling performance reviews previously. That might have reflected generosity at review time more than actual performance — a pervasive problem in government — but it gave the fired attorneys a reason to be upset. Spokesmen such as Roehrkasse looked disingenuous at best and the perception of scandal slowly built.
Then, it came out that elected Republican officials — New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson — had called to ask former New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias about specific cases he had been handling, particularly regarding allegations of a corruption of a local Democratic official. Iglesias thought he was being pressured with the implication being that the Republicans wanted an indictment before the November election. Iglesias did not issue the indictment pre-election; the Senate Ethics Committee plans to hold hearings on the matter.
Lacking experience with the opposition party in charge of Congress, the administration failed to anticipate the backlash. So six of the group testified before Congress, Senate Democrats announced plans to subpoena five senior Justice Department officials, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the way U.S. attorneys are replaced will be changed.
The firings appear to have been politically motivated — objectionable enough — but not scandalously so. The real scandal is how poorly the Justice Department handled the situation.