WASHINGTON All but one of the U.S. attorneys recently fired by the Justice Department had positive job reviews before they were dismissed, but many ran into political trouble with Washington over issues ranging from immigration to the death penalty, according to prosecutors, congressional aides and others familiar with the cases.
Two months after the firings first began to make waves on Capitol Hill, it has also become clear that most of the prosecutors were overseeing significant public-corruption investigations at the time they were asked to leave. Four of the probes target Republican politicians or their supporters, prosecutors and other officials said.
The emerging details stand in contrast to repeated statements from the Justice Department that six of the Republican-appointed prosecutors were dismissed because of poor performance. In one of the most prominent examples, agency officials pointed to widely known management and morale problems surrounding then-U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan in San Francisco.
But the assertions enraged the rest of the group, some of whom feel betrayed after staying silent about the way they had been shoved from office.
Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., who was asked to resign earlier than the others to make way for a former White House aide, said Justice Department officials crossed a line by publicly criticizing the performance of his well-regarded colleagues.
"They're entitled to make these changes for any reason or no reason or even for an idiotic reason," Cummins said. "But if they are trying to suggest that people have inferior performance to hide whatever their true agenda is, that is wrong. They should retract those statements."
Justice Department officials initially sought to obscure the firings even from some senators and have since issued confusing signals and contradictory information about the episode.
One source who was familiar with the episode said last week that an eighth U.S. attorney was asked to resign along in December with the others. The unidentified prosecutor is negotiating to stay in the job, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of those discussions.
The end result is an unusual spectacle in which Democratic lawmakers are bemoaning the firings of Republican-appointed prosecutors. The political pressure has become so great that Cummins' successor in Arkansas, former White House aide Timothy Griffin, announced Friday that he had decided not to submit his name to the Senate for a permanent appointment.
Lawmakers from both parties are pushing to strip Attorney General Alberto Gonzales of his power to name replacement U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period, although Republicans blocked that proposal in the Senate last week. The House Judiciary Committee is planning hearings on similar legislation in March.
"I don't know how they could have mishandled this any worse," said one of the fired U.S. prosecutors.
"There always have traditionally been tensions between main Justice and U.S. attorneys in the districts," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "But it does seem like there's an effort to centralize authority in Washington more than there has been in the past and in prior administrations."
Most of the firings came Dec. 7, when senior Justice Department official Michael Battle a former U.S. attorney himself called six prosecutors to inform them that they were being asked to resign. Battle was apologetic but offered little in the way of explanation, telling some that the order had come from "on high," according to sources familiar with the calls.
In addition to Ryan in San Francisco, the prosecutors who were called that day included Carol Lam in San Diego, John McKay in Seattle, David Iglesias in New Mexico, Daniel Bogden in Nevada and Paul Charlton in Arizona. Cummins had been informed of his dismissal last summer but stayed until December.
The breaking point for Cummins and the others was testimony earlier this month by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the six U.S. attorneys in the West and Southwest had been dismissed for "performance-related" reasons and that Cummins had been pushed out to make room for Griffin.
That testimony "was the moment the gloves came off," said one fired prosecutor who declined to be identified.
Five of the dismissed prosecutors Bogden, Charlton, Cummins, Iglesias and McKay told reporters they were not given any reason for their firings and had not been told of any performance problems. Only one of the fired prosecutors, Ryan in San Francisco, faced substantive complaints about turnover or other management-related issues, officials said.
Justice Department officials in recent days have sought to clarify the performance comments, saying the dispute is mired in "semantics." The officials said McNulty was referring to policy differences between the Bush administration and some of its employees. One official also said the department had not made a list of replacements ahead of time.
"When you are setting national policy, you cannot have U.S. attorneys setting their own policies," said a Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Bogden and Lam are among a handful of declared independents who worked as U.S. attorneys in the Bush administration. The rest of the group are viewed as moderate Republicans who have sometimes been at odds with their Washington bosses or more conservative Republicans.
In Seattle, for example, local Republicans complained to Gonzales about McKay's decision not to intervene in the disputed Washington gubernatorial race in 2006, which a Democrat eventually won by 129 votes.
Lam was the target of repeated complaints from conservative House Republicans, who asserted she was lax in enforcing immigration laws. The Justice Department also points to drops in the number of firearms cases filed by her office.
Charlton in Arizona clashed with the Justice Department's headquarters on at least two occasions over murder cases in which he opposed seeking the death penalty. He was overruled in both cases, officials said.
"There was no public controversy about any of these; any controversy was within the Justice Department," said J. Grant Woods, a Republican and former Arizona attorney general.
The cases that have gotten most of the attention among Democrats in Congress involve public-corruption investigations. In San Diego, Lam oversaw the probe that resulted in the guilty plea of then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican. Two others connected to that case, including a former senior CIA official, were indicted two days before Lam left the job on Thursday.
Bogden in Nevada and Charlton in Arizona were also in the midst of investigations targeting current or former Republican members of Congress when they were fired. And in New Mexico, Iglesias's office had been examining alleged wrongdoing involving state Democrats.
Gonzales, McNulty and other Justice Department officials have strongly denied those investigations played a role in the dismissals.