Last week, The House Judiciary Committee launched an investigation of precisely why eight U.S. attorneys, who serve at the pleasure of the President, were dismissed in December.
Initially officials at the Justice Department said all eight were dismissed because of concerns about their job performance. However, the same sources now say at least some of the eight federal prosecutors were fired because of policy reasons.
On Tuesday, House Democrats investigating the matter released several documents in connection with the case.
“The latest round of disclosures from the Department of Justice raise new and troubling questions about the firing of six U.S. attorneys,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich. “We have just received documents from the Justice Department in the last hour and are in the process of reviewing them. At a minimum, we believe these documents show a coordinated effort, initiated by the White House, to purge every U.S. attorney in the country.”
One of the documents Conyers released to the media called into question the administration’s reason for firing Arizona U.S. attorney Paul Charlton.
Initially Justice officials said Charlton was dismissed because of his views on the death penalty, but a Justice Department email suggested that Charlton was dismissed in part because of his views regarding prosecutions for obscenity and marijuana smuggling cases involving less than 500 pounds of the drug.
None of the documents released in connection with Charlton’s dismissal mentioned his views on the death penalty.
According to Ann Harwood, the first assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona, Charlton’s office did pursue at least one obscenity case at the urging of officials at the Justice Department. But it is unclear if that case, or another case, lead to some fallout between Charlton and officials in Washington.
“I'm not sure if this is the one they wanted us to take or if there was another one,” she said.
Charlton has declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
At the same time that Conyers released his statement to the press, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who orchestrated the purge, had resigned.
“I acknowledge that mistakes were made here,” Gonzales said. “I accept that responsibility. And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.”
The White House has maintained that the President merely signed off on the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys, but did not tell Justice which prosecutors to put on the list. The records released Tuesday contradict that assertion by detailing a 2005 White House inquiry into firing all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Conyers vowed to find the truth behind the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys.
“We will get to the bottom of this crisis in our Justice Department with or without cooperation,” he said. “The U.S. attorneys are entrusted with tremendous power in our criminal justice system. Using the U.S. attorneys as political pawns undermines their critical work in fighting terrorism and risks subjecting the power of the prosecutor to partisan whims.”