Six of the eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Justice Department ranked in the top third among their peers for the number of prosecutions filed last year, according to an analysis of federal records.
In addition, five of the eight were among the government’s top performers in winning convictions.
The analysis undercuts Justice Department claims that the prosecutors were dismissed because of lackluster job performance. Democrats contend the firings were politically motivated, and calls are increasing for the resignation or ouster of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Immigration cases — a top Bush administration priority, especially in states along the porous Southwest border — helped boost the total number of prosecutions for U.S. attorneys in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
Four of the prosecutors also rated high in pursuing drug cases, according to Justice Department data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Only one of the eight received a better-than-average ranking in prosecuting weapons cases.
‘The basis for my dismissal’
Several of the attorneys who were told last Dec. 7 to resign complained their reputations were sullied when the Justice Department linked the firings to underwhelming results in each of the eight districts _ in Arizona, Little Rock, Ark., Grand Rapids, Mich., Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
“I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal,” Margaret Chiara, the former prosecutor in Grand Rapids, Mich., complained in an e-mail. The description, in part, she said, “is proving to be a formidable obstacle to securing employment.”
Top Justice aide Michael Elston wrote back that “our only choice is to continue to be truthful about this entire matter.”
“The word performance obviously has not set well with you and your colleagues,” wrote Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. “By that word we only meant to convey that there were issues about policy, priorities and management/leadership that we felt were important to the Department’s effectiveness.”
The data on prosecutions and convictions, provided to TRAC by the Justice Department’s executive office that oversees U.S. attorneys, indicates the majority of the fired prosecutors were hardly slackers.
- Except for Chiara and Bud Cummins in Little Rock, the group ranked in the top third among the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys in contributing to an overall 106,188 federal prosecutions filed last year.
- Of those six, all but Kevin Ryan in San Francisco also scored among the top third in winning a collective 98,939 convictions.
- Three districts — Arizona, New Mexico and San Diego — were among the five highest in number of immigration prosecutions. Given their proximity to the Mexican border, the results come as little surprise. The Justice Department, however, attributed former San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam’s firing in part to lagging immigration prosecutions and convictions.
The TRAC data confirm immigration prosecutions in San Diego dropped from 2,243 in 2002 to 1,715 in 2006. Meanwhile, convictions dropped from 1,763 to 1,449 over the five-year period Lam led the office.
- In drug prosecutions, Arizona, New Mexico, San Diego and Seattle were ranked among in the 20 highest number of cases brought. Only Little Rock fell into the bottom third among all 93 U.S. attorneys’ offices.
- Seven of the eight districts received mediocre rankings in weapons prosecutions. The exception was Arizona, which prosecuted 199 of the nation’s 9,313 weapons cases — the tenth highest in the country.
- None of the eight districts ranked particularly high in bringing terrorism or public corruption cases.
‘Really undermines the system’
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse attributed the high number of prosecutions and convictions in the border states to immigration cases that inflated overall statistics there. He called the number of immigration convictions last year “the highest ever.”
Justice officials have cited poor management skills, insubordination and, in Cummins’ case in Little Rock, political favoritism for replacements as other factors that led to the firings.
That underscores another apparent consideration in the dismissals: loyalty to the Bush administration, said former Justice Department inspector general Michael Bromwich.
“The notion that the rug can be pulled out from under them because they may not toe the line on death penalty issues or their immigration prosecution statistics may not be high enough really undermines the system of independent U.S. attorneys,” said Bromwich, inspector general during the Clinton administration and now a partner in Washington law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson.
An estimated 3,000 pages of e-mails and other Justice Department documents released this week indicate anew that the White House was eager to bring in new blood to the politically appointed prosecutors’ posts.
“Administration has determined to ask some underperforming USAs to move on,” wrote Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, in a Dec. 5, 2006, e-mail to Associate Attorney General Bill Mercer. The term “USAs” is shorthand for U.S. attorneys.