Democrats: Report on U.S. attorney firings leaves questions

Nora Dannehy, a career prosecutor, will direct probe.

Key congressional leaders Monday questioned the comprehensiveness of a long-awaited Justice Department report that largely let former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales off the hook for the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys. The nearly 400-page document, written by Inspector General Glenn Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility Director H. Marshall Jarrett, did not recommend that Gonzales face a federal grand jury for his role. But it did call the process used to remove the attorneys "fundamentally flawed ... unsystematic and arbitrary."

A special prosecutor, Connecticut federal prosecutor Nora Dannahey, has been named to pursue possible criminal charges against individuals involved in the firings.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Monday the report "might have told us even more if the investigation had not been impeded by the Bush administration's refusal to cooperate." The study itself acknowledged gaps in the probe -- investigators were not allowed to interview former White House officials such as Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, William Kelley, and Monica Goodling.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and his chief of staff Steve Bell were also not questioned. The report singled out the removal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico as the most disturbing. The firings were the topic of several hearings and prompted a lawsuit filed by House Judiciary Democrats.

"The Bush administration's self-serving secrecy has shrouded many of their most controversial policies -- from torture, to investigating the causes of 9/11, to wiretapping," Leahy said at a briefing, adding that the report fails to answer questions about the reasons for the firings and inconsistent and misleading statements from Gonzales and others. Leahy warned the White House that any misuse of pardon power or grant of clemency or immunity would be seen as an admission of wrongdoing. But Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., downplayed that possibility, saying that there is "no indication that President Bush intends to pardon anybody."

According to the report, Gonzales and former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty failed to adequately supervise the removals. Instead, Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' chief of staff, did much of the work without careful evaluation of the basis for each dismissal. The investigation uncovered substantial evidence that politics was a factor in the removal of several attorneys, particularly Iglesias, who was the target of complaints from Domenici, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and GOP activists about his handling of allegations of voter fraud and public corruption cases. Calls to Domenici's attorney and Wilson's office were not returned by presstime.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said the report "confirmed our very worst suspicions" and repeated his intention to obtain previously withheld White House documents and testimony. He also announced a Friday hearing to examine the report despite Congress's pending adjournment. A Leahy aide said a hearing by his committee had not been planned, but the senator said he intended to "keep on looking until we get all the answers." Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the report "dispelled many of the most disturbing allegations" regarding the removals but still showed that the process was "haphazard, arbitrary and unprofessional." Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., welcomed the appointment of Dannahey but said he planned to write to Mukasey asking for details on what precise authority she would have.