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Power of attorneys

"Power of attorneys" Continued...

Issue: "Street warfare," April 7, 2007

That ruling codified a precedent set six decades earlier when Congress failed in its effort to oust President Andrew Johnson for his unilateral removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House of Representatives impeached Johnson in 1868 for his action, but the Senate fell one vote short, averting what many historians believe might have dangerously altered the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.

Such history offers little comfort to the eight fired U.S. attorneys, who consider themselves casualties of inappropriate partisan politics. David Iglesias, former attorney for the district of New Mexico, told WORLD that his dismissal resulted from the administration's dissatisfaction that he did not race to press corruption charges against local Democrats prior to last November's election.

Iglesias, whose prosecution skills inspired the character played by Tom Cruise in the 1992 film A Few Good Men, cannot produce any smoking-gun evidence to support his contention. But two improper phone calls last fall from GOP lawmakers inquiring about the corruption case lend validity to his account-albeit circumstantial. In the first call, Iglesias evaded questions from Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), citing his legal obligation not to discuss sealed indictments. When Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) called soon after to inquire if he planned to file charges before November, Iglesias said he didn't think so. Domenici expressed disappointment and abruptly hung up.

Iglesias received a call from the Justice Department several weeks later asking for his resignation. He was shocked: "I asked main Justice why, and the response I got was, 'I don't know, and I don't think I want to know.' That was troubling, because normally when you tell someone it's time to move on, you at least give them a reason."

The reason came later-after Congress demanded the Justice Department explain itself. In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18, Attorney General Gonzales testified that he would "never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons." Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told that same committee on Feb. 6 that the firings of all eight U.S. attorneys were for "performance-related" issues.

Those statements proved inaccurate on March 13 with the release of Justice Department emails revealing several non-performance-related issues, political considerations among them. Gonzales responded to those revelations with an apology, claiming that his staff made mistakes of which he was previously unaware. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, promptly resigned. Michael Battle, the director of the Executive Office for United States attorneys, had already stepped down one week earlier for his poor performance in personally calling several of the attorneys to fire them on Dec. 7.

Such inconsistencies and overall mishandling of the situation continues to fuel suspicions that the Justice Department is covering up some illegal activity. A further revelation that Gonzales participated in a Nov. 27 meeting about the firings contradicts his claim that he was not involved in the process, upping the temperature of an already sizzling hot seat.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer believes that alone is enough to warrant the resignation of Gonzales, who "has allowed a scandal to be created where there was none."

Indeed, if the firings of all eight U.S. attorneys were based on legitimate reasons, even legitimate political reasons, why have they resulted in two high-level Justice Department resignations and an impending showdown over executive privilege?

The answer for many Democrats and several Republicans is that Gonzales simply proved incompetent and must step down. But for Iglesias and his dismissed colleagues, such political fallout pales in importance compared to the impact on their professional reputations. "What would really settle this in my mind," Iglesias said, "is a written retraction from the Justice Department stating that performance was not the true basis."

Instead, the Justice Department has provided more details as to why it judged the attorneys' performance sufficiently poor to warrant dismissal. On March 6, William Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, testified to the House Judiciary Committee that Iglesias had delegated too much responsibility to his first assistant, effectively handing over the running of his office.

Moschella went on to explain that fired attorneys Carol Lam of San Diego and Paul Charlton of Arizona maintained disagreements with the Bush administration over prosecutorial policies and priorities. Bud Cummins of Arkansas and Daniel Bogden of Nevada were let go to make room for new blood, specifically a personal friend of White House adviser Karl Rove in the case of Cummins. And John McKay of Washington state was dismissed due to concerns over his manner in advocating particular policies.

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