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Prosecutor posts often go to Bush insiders

About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney's jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by trusted administration insiders, some of whom didn't have previous experience as prosecutors.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney's jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by the White House and the Justice Department with trusted administration insiders.

The people chosen as chief federal prosecutors on a temporary or permanent basis since early 2005 include 10 senior aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, according to an analysis of government records. Several came from the White House or other government agencies. Some lacked experience as prosecutors or had no connection to the districts in which they were sent to work, the records and biographical information show.

The new U.S. attorneys filled vacancies created through natural turnover in addition to the firings of eight prosecutors last year that have prompted a political uproar and congressional investigations.

No other administration in contemporary times has had such a clear pattern of filling chief prosecutors' jobs with its own staff members, said experts on U.S. attorney's offices. Those experts said the emphasis in appointments traditionally has been on local roots and deference to home-state senators, whose support has been crucial to win confirmation of the nominees.

The pattern from Bush's second term suggests that the dismissals were half of a two-pronged approach: While getting rid of prosecutors who did not adhere closely to administration priorities, such as rigorous pursuit of immigration violations and GOP allegations of voter fraud, White House and Justice officials have seeded federal prosecutors' offices with people on whom they can depend to carry out the administration's agenda.

Some weren't prosecutors before
The interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., Bradley J. Schlozman, for example, was a deputy in Justice's civil rights division who helped overrule career government lawyers in approving a Texas redistricting plan pushed by Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), then House majority leader. In January, the White House nominated a permanent replacement, John Wood, who is counselor to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. Neither Schlozman nor Wood has been a prosecutor before.

Justice officials defend their record of U.S. attorney selections, saying that among Bush's choices since the start of his first term, a larger share have had experience as federal prosecutors than those of President Bill Clinton. One Justice official acknowledged that a number of administration insiders have been chosen but said there was no concerted effort to do so.

As Congress pursues its investigation, some Democrats have indicated they want to explore who has been hired, in addition to the firings that have been the focal point of hearings on Capitol Hill -- and of calls from both parties for Gonzales to resign.

"If we have eight U.S. attorneys dismissed because they were not 'loyal Bushies,' then how many of the remaining U.S. attorneys are?" asked Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), borrowing a phrase that Gonzales's former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, used in an internal e-mail to describe criteria by which prosecutors were chosen to be fired.

"A U.S. attorney's position is a strong line on your résumé. If the administration rewards you with that position and you come straight from Washington, it's hard not to be grateful," Durbin, the majority whip, said in an interview. "That gratitude can translate into loyalty to Washington rather than loyalty to the job."

Practice is different, but not improper
Choosing insiders as U.S. attorneys is not improper, given the wide latitude the law provides presidents in selecting federal prosecutors, and all administrations tend to choose those who share their basic legal outlook and party affiliation.

Still, academics and other experts say, the appointments appear to alter a long-standing culture of autonomy for the nation's chief prosecutors. James Eisenstein, a Pennsylvania State University political scientist who has written a book on U.S. attorneys, said that historically, federal prosecutors have regarded operating "in a politically neutral, nonpartisan manner" as a cornerstone of their roles. Hiring people from Justice, Eisenstein said, "was very unusual."

Jamie S. Gorelick, deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said it was uncommon during her tenure to dispatch aides from Justice to become U.S. attorneys, except in urgent circumstances, such as when Robert S. Mueller III, now the FBI director, was named U.S. attorney in San Francisco to shore up that troubled office. "These jobs are serious prosecutorial jobs that require judgment and an understanding of the laws that are to be enforced," she said. "They are not meant to be steppingstones, or to give people turns at political jobs."

Most U.S. attorneys ‘traditional’ picks
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said it is not surprising that the current administration frequently has sent Justice officials to run U.S. attorney's offices. "Like many organizations, it is common for Justice Department employees, appointees and even U.S. attorneys to accept new positions or assignments within the department," he said. It "can be tremendously beneficial for a U.S. attorney to have experience working elsewhere in the department," he added.

Roehrkasse pointed to respected examples, such as U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the GOP presidential candidate and former New York mayor who was once a federal prosecutor.

To be sure, the majority of the U.S. attorneys named since 2005 have been relatively traditional choices, such as career prosecutors who moved up to the top job in the district in which they worked.

But not all. Recent U.S. attorney appointees include an assistant attorney general for civil rights, a chief of staff to the deputy attorney general and a chief of staff to the head of the criminal division. One appointee, Scott Schools, was general counsel for the Justice office that oversees U.S. attorneys and led the internal probe of the office of the fired prosecutor he is replacing, Kevin V. Ryan in San Francisco.

Three of the closest advisers to former attorney general John D. Ashcroft also have become U.S. attorneys in the past two years.

Sidestepping Senate confirmation
A fourth adviser -- Sampson -- had an even more influential position. He was in charge of U.S. attorney selections in the White House counsel's office and later at Justice, where he eventually became Gonzales's chief of staff. Sampson also coordinated the firings, and last month he resigned as the controversy swelled.

Sampson sought to be a U.S. attorney, too, and he was the administration's preferred choice last year to be chief prosecutor in his native Utah. But he was nudged aside for another GOP lawyer, Brett L. Tolman, who was favored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Tolman was counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 2005 when, at Justice's request, he had language inserted into USA Patriot Act legislation that allowed Gonzales to circumvent Senate confirmation by appointing interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely. Congress is in the process of repealing the provision.

Of the nearly four dozen regional chief prosecutors named in Bush's second term, 20 have been interim appointments. The proportion who have bypassed the Senate has been roughly the same for administration insiders as for the others.

Some of the insiders who had no ties to their new communities have been well received.

Mixed reactions to outsiders
When Gonzales was preparing to appoint Deborah Rhodes, counselor in the department's criminal division, she stopped by to visit with Alabama's two Republican senators. "I don't think I'd ever met her, or heard of her for that matter," recalled Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. attorney in the southern Alabama district in which Rhodes was to work. Sessions said he and Sen. Richard C. Shelby had intended to recommend someone local for the job permanently but ended up urging Bush to nominate Rhodes, because she appeared to be turning around an office beset by low morale and a probe of her predecessor.

Other insiders who have been made U.S. attorneys have drawn complaints that they are political or inexperienced.

Missouri had for years been a hub of GOP allegations of election fraud -- long disputed by Democrats -- when Schlozman arrived a year ago from Justice's civil rights division. Six days before the November elections, he announced indictments of four voter-registration recruiters for a left-leaning group, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, for allegedly submitting fraudulent registrations to the election board in Kansas City, Mo. Democrats have protested.

In Minnesota, Rachel K. Paulose was named interim U.S. attorney 13 months ago and nominated for the permanent job in December. As senior counsel to McNulty, she helped draft an initiative to crack down on child pornography through long prison sentences. Since arriving in Minneapolis, she has expanded investigations of such crimes, which have been a high priority for Gonzales, and pushed for sentences she has called "righteous."

Paulose replaced Thomas B. Heffelfinger, who spent nearly 20 years as a state and federal prosecutor and recently left for private practice to increase his income. Heffelfinger supervised Paulose when she was a young assistant prosecutor in the office. He would not comment on her qualifications. "I was 58 when I left. She was 32 when she started," he said. "I brought significantly different things to the job than she brings to the job -- without valuing them one way or the other."

Staff writer Peter Slevin in Chicago contributed to this report.