Saturday, January 27, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

McClatchy Washington Bureau reports that Gonzales appoints political loyalists into vacant U.S. attorneys slots:

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is transforming the ranks of the nation’s top federal prosecutors by firing some and appointing conservative loyalists from the Bush administration’s inner circle who critics say are unlikely to buck Washington.

The newly appointed U.S. attorneys all have impressive legal credentials, but most of them have few, if any, ties to the communities they’ve been appointed to serve, and some have had little experience as prosecutors.

The nine recent appointees identified by McClatchy Newspapers held high-level White House or Justice Department jobs, and most of them were handpicked by Gonzales under a little-noticed provision of the Patriot Act that became law in March.

Now, it is always easy to look at the activities of those in Washington and find oneself assuming the worst, especially when one is predisposed to be critical of a given administration.

On the one hand, the notion that an appointment process is political is hardly a surprise, nor is it odd to see a given branch (or a specific administration) seeking to increase its power (indeed, James Madison foresaw that very activity in Federalist 51).   Still, the current administration has shown an especial interest in fortifying the power of the executive, so these types of moves tend to receive understandably more scrutiny.  And the fact that this has something to the do with the Patriot Act has the effect of raising additional flags.

More to the point:  the fact that some US Attorneys are being fired and their replacements are being selected under this less than transparent process is concerning.

Here are the basics (from the above-linked article):

Traditionally, the top assistant U.S. attorney in each local office temporarily fills any vacancy while home-state senators search for preferred candidates to present to the White House for consideration. If it takes more than four months to find a permanent successor, a judge can extend the temporary appointment or name another acting U.S. attorney. Ultimately, the candidates must be confirmed by the Senate.

Gonzales gained the ability to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms as a result of a change to the Patriot Act that stripped federal judges of their appointment power.

It seems odd to have made this change–why would the AG be inherently better to manage this job than judges?  What does such a move have to do with improving the federal government’s ability to deal with terrorism (ostensibly the purpose of USA PATRIOT)?

At a minimum I am not a fan of interim appointments for undefined amounts of time–especially for positions that ultimately are supposed to go before the Senate.

The degree to which Gonzalez’s actions are considered nefarious (or even problematic) likely is shaded by one’s views of the administration.  Still, there does appear to be a shift in approach:

Several prosecutors said prior Republican administrations avoided such tight control.

“Under Reagan and the first Bush administration, we worked very hard to push the power out to the locals,” said Jean Paul Bradshaw, who was a U.S. attorney in Kansas City under President George H.W. Bush. “Local attorneys know how a case will play in their areas, what crimes are a problem. Ultimately, these decisions are better made locally.”

Peter Nunez, a U.S. attorney in San Diego under President Reagan for six years, said prosecutors have expressed frustration with the strict oversight from Washington.

“I’ve heard nothing but complaints over the last six years about how many things the Justice Department is demanding relating to bureaucracy and red tape,” Nunez said.

At a minimum, the past focus on local connections makes sense and it does appear that there is a very plausible argument to be made that the goal of the administration is to assert greater control in this realm.

However, the situation takes on a more disturbing hue when one focuses on the fact that these are not just replacements of persons leaving office. 

For example (via an editorial from the NYT ):

The federal investigation into Congressional corruption is approaching a crucial deadline and potential dead end. Feb. 15 is the last day on the job for United States Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego, the inquiry’s dedicated prosecutor, who is being purged by the Bush administration.

Her investigation led to the imprisonment of former Representative Randy Cunningham, the California Republican who took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for delivering lucrative government contracts. But just as Ms. Lam was digging into other possible wrongdoing, the White House decided to force her from office without explanation.

The same editorial notes:

The administration is defenestrating at least six other U.S. attorneys. Yet Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is refusing to provide Congress with details on these unmerited dismissals. He insists that there’s no attempt to quash fresh Republican scandals and says only the “very best” will be named as replacements.

This is, under the best interpretation, odd.  Under the worst it looks like an abuse of power.

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5 Responses to “Is the AG Exerting Undo Influence over Appointment of US Attys?”

  1. MW Says:

    Didn’t Clinton basically fire almost every US attorney back in 1993?

  2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Three thoughts:

    1) US Attorneys serve four years, so presumably a number of slots would have come open at the start of an administration.

    2) Let’s assume that Clinton did fire them all–would that make what Gonzalez is doing better or worse? I mean: what’s the argument? Plus ’93 was the beginning of his tenure in office, the current replacements are during the waning years of Bush’s admin.

    3) The major difference with the here and now is the extra powers given to the AG under the Patriot Act.

  3. Simmons Says:

    Checks and balances are slowly being eroded. Even in a time of war, some laws must be respected. Besides poll ratings, Bush and Nixon have something in common. Consolidation of power.

  4. MW Says:

    These positions are appointed positions (with Senate confirmation) and the terms are 4 years, then Bush is getting rid of those he already appointed. I’m not seeing the big deal here.

    As you noted Dr. Taylor, a big difference between Clinton firing all(most?) of the 90+(?) US attorneys back in 1993, is the Patriot Act and what happens after 120 days if the acting US attorney is not yet confirmed.

    The solution (if there needs to be one) is to have the Democrat controlled House and Senate repeal the Patriot Act. If Pres Bush vetoes that, then the next President (which has about a 90% probability of being Clinton/Obamma/Richardson) can then sign the repeal. If the next Democrat President doesn’t repeal the Patriot Act what would that say about him/her?

  5. Robin Boerner Says:

    The timing of Alaska’s USA replacement is interesting…does Sen Ted Stevens protest too much?

    I’d like to see a complete list. Notice how Nelson Cohen is claiming HE is not part of this exclusive group. Then read the article below from the CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER:

    “But Gonzales overrode Stevens’ objection and put in Cohen to be U.S. Attorney in Alaska on a temporary basis. As such, the Cohen appointment does not require Senate confirmation”

    From the DOJ website:

    Key Personnel In United States Attorney’s Offices

    District: ALASKA
    Site Phone Phone Number
    Office: (907) 271-5071
    Fax: (907) 271-3224
    Site Address Type Address
    Mailing: Federal Bldg. & U.S. Cthse.
    222 W. 7th Ave., #9, Rm 253
    Anchorage, AK 99513-7567
    Shipping: Federal Bldg. & U.S. Cthse.
    222 W. 7th Ave., #9, Rm 253
    Anchorage, AK 99513-7567

    * Represents Presidentially Appointed United States Attorney

    Official Position/Title Name

    USA Nelson P. Cohen


    Senator Stevens Feuds with Main Justice in DC as FBI Raids Son’s Office in Alaska
    20 Corporate Crime Reporter 35(1), September 6, 2006

    Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is feuding with the Justice Department.

    On August 22, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appointed Nelson Cohen, head of the white collar crime unit at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – to be the interim U.S. Attorney in Alaska – over the objections of Senator Stevens.

    Senator Stevens said at the time that he was “furious at the way the Attorney General handled the matter.”

    According to a transcript provided by Senator Stevens’ office to Corporate Crime Reporter, at a press conference on August 28 in Anchorage, Alaska, Senator Stevens was asked by a reporter – “Who do you think should be U.S. Attorney?”

    “Well not someone who comes from Pennsylvania, and that’s a little problem I have right now, finding out what to do about that,” Stevens said. “Because very clearly, I was called three weeks ago now, and told they had someone who they’d like to nominate from outside Alaska. And we said, ‘No, no. You’re not going to do that. You can’t do that. You don’t do that in any other state. You’re not going to do it in this one.’”

    But Gonzales overrode Stevens’ objection and put in Cohen to be U.S. Attorney in Alaska on a temporary basis. As such, the Cohen appointment does not require Senate confirmation.

    In a press release , the Justice Department says that prior to joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh, Cohen practiced law for ten years in Alaska.

    “We submitted some names, but Justice had one reason or another that they figured the person had a conflict, but they never really came with anything other than that we should find someone else,” Stevens said at the press conference. “We did give them some additional names, but in the meantime they had already taken action on this person. We have to arm wrestle on this one. It is not the thing to do. It has only happened one other time that I can remember. I can remember it happened in Illinois and it caused such an uproar. As a matter of fact, it became a real cause celeb with the Illinois Bar Association.”

    On August 31 – just three days after Senator Stevens’ press conference denouncing the Department of Justice – the FBI raided the offices of a number of state legislators in Juneau including that of Senator Stevens son – Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens.

    FBI agents reportedly left Ben Stevens Capitol offices with 12 boxes of documents labeled “evidence.”

    Federal officials are reportedly investigating payments from oil service giant VECO to a number of public officials in exchange for their support for a new production tax law and the construction of a natural gas pipeline in Alaska.
    The Anchorage Daily News reported last week that “in disclosures he was required to file as a legislator, [Ben] Stevens said he was paid $243,000 over the last five years as a ‘consultant’ to VECO. Whenever he was asked to describe what he did for the money, Stevens refused to answer. The company also refused to say.”

    In addition to computer hard drives and hard paper records linking the legislators to VECO, FBI agents were reportedly seeking hats emblazoned with the logo – “Corrupt Bastards Club” or “Corrupt Bastards Caucus.”
    In March, in an op-ed piece run in the state’s major papers, Lori Backes, executive director of the All Alaska Alliance – a group that has supported an alternative gas pipeline route – had charged eleven lawmakers – including Senator Ben Stevens – with taking money from VECO.

    The lawmakers reportedly started referring to themselves as the “Corrupt Bastards Club” or the “Corrupt Bastards Caucus” – and had hats printed with the CBC logo.

    Aaron Saunders, a spokesman for Senator Ted Stevens, would not discuss anything having to do with the FBI raid in Alaska.

    Nor would he say why Senator Stevens was “furious” with Attorney General Gonzales.

    Could it be that the Justice Department was not going to give Senator Stevens his choice of a U.S. Attorney when the Stevens family was caught in the middle of a public corruption probe?

    No comment, Saunders said.


    Corporate Crime Reporter
    1209 National Press Bldg.
    Washington, D.C. 20045

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