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The Justice Department’s release of 3, 000 documents related to its botched dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys hasn’t squelched the scandal over the firings. The e-mails provide no direct evidence that prosecutors were fired for not pursuing public-corruption cases in a way favorable to Republicans. But the e-mail dump has nonetheless highlighted anew the conflict between the statements top officials made under oath and the policies their aides were pursuing. Here are some stories behind the e-mail exchanges. . . . To date, the scandal over the Justice Department’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys has claimed the job of exactly one higher-up. But it remains a bit of a mystery as to exactly why D. Kyle Sampson, the attorney general’s former chief of staff, was asked to jump. At a March 13 press conference announcing Sampson’s departure, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, “The charge for the chief of staff here was to drive this process, and the mistake that occurred here was that information that he had was not shared with individuals within the department who [were] then going to be providing testimony and information to the Congress.” That explanation has been contradicted by Sampson himself, who has indicated he resigned over a failure to organize an effective political response. “Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. Attorneys,” Sampson’s lawyer, Bradford Berenson, said in a written statement. “The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing this subject since the election was well-known to a number of other senior officials at the Department, including others who were involved in preparing the Department’s testimony to Congress.” Documents in last week’s release of thousands of pages of internal Justice Department correspondence appear to support that view. At issue are e-mails from Sampson to the White House Counsel’s Office in the fall of 2006 in which Sampson outlined a plan to use a provision of the USA Patriot Act to appoint “interim” U.S. attorneys indefinitely and circumvent the Senate approval process. Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Justice had not tried to use it to bypass the Senate. But Sampson had shared information about the plan with department officials, including aides who would help prepare McNulty and Gonzales for their congressional appearances in January and February. In October, Sampson forwarded an e-mail message to Michael Elston, McNulty’s chief of staff. The final section of the message included correspondence between Sampson and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, in which Sampson wrote: “I strongly recommend that, as a matter of Administration policy, we utilize the new statutory provisions that authorize the AG to make USA appointments. . . . By not going the PAS [presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed] route, we can give far less deference to home-State Senators and thereby get (1) our preferred person appointed and (2) do it far faster and more efficiently, at less political cost to the White House.” The Oct. 17 e-mail would appear to indicate that McNulty’s top aide had been informed that Gonzales’ chief of staff was working with the White House to cut the Senate out of the appointment process for U.S. attorneys. But that’s not the case, says a Justice Department spokesman. “Either Elston did not scroll down on his BlackBerry to read the last section [of the e-mail] or it made no impression on him, because he knew that it did not reflect the department’s plan for replacing the U.S. attorneys who would be asked to resign,” says spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. On Dec. 19, Sampson forwarded more of his e-mail correspondence with the White House to Monica Goodling, a counsel to Gonzales who is the department’s White House liaison. In the message, Sampson discussed how to address complaints from Arkansas’ two Democratic senators about the forthcoming appointment of J. Timothy Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove, as “interim” U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas. The previous U.S. attorney, H.E. Cummins III, had been asked to resign to make way for Griffin. “I think we should gum this to death,” Sampson wrote. “Ask the Senators to give Tim a chance, meet with him, give him some time in office to see how he performs, etc. If they ultimately say, ‘no never’ (and the longer we can forestall that, the better), then we can tell them we’ll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, evaluate the recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in ‘good faith,’ of course.” (Records released last week indicate Gonzales lobbied on behalf of Griffin in three telephone calls with Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor in December and January.) The same day Sampson forwarded his “gum this to death” strategy to Goodling, Sampson wrote another message to her and to the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs with concern about a recent Associated Press article in which the Arkansas senators expressed dismay about Griffin’s appointment and suggested the Justice Department was trying to bypass the Senate approval process. What upset Sampson wasn’t the senators’ complaints but the response of a department spokesman, who was reported as indicating that “officials will work with the Arkansas congressional delegation ‘in the near future’ to make a nomination, and that Griffin was nominated on an interim basis because of the timing of Cummins’ resignation.” Sampson’s e-mail to the public affairs office said that he would prefer spokespeople use a different set of talking points, which included emphasizing that when a U.S. attorney vacancy arises, “someone needs to be appointed � even if on an interim basis” and that “it is our hope . . . we’ll be able to have a U.S. attorney who was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.” Responding that same evening, Tasia Scolinos, the Justice Department’s top spokeswoman, wrote, “I agree � those are stronger talkers.” In response to questions last week about the involvement of Goodling, Elston and the Office of Public Affairs in the plan, Scolinos issued a statement saying, “Documents released to Congress by the Justice Department which suggest there may have been an attempt to circumvent the Senate confirmation process do not and did not represent the official views or final actions of the department and the attorney general.” Among the 3,000 documents are e-mail messages between Justice’s top officials with one noticeable absence � Gonzales. The reason, according to spokeswoman Scolinos: “The AG does not have e-mail.” In this regard, as in so many others, Gonzales seems to be taking a cue from his boss. In October, CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo in an interview asked President Bush whether he uses the Internet. “I don’t e-mail, because of the different record requests that can happen to a president,” said Bush, according to a transcript. “I don’t want to receive e-mails because, you know, there’s no telling what somebody’s e-mail may � it would show up as, you know, a part of some kind of a story, and I wouldn’t be able to say, ‘Well, I didn’t read the e-mail.’ ‘But I sent it to your address � how can you say you didn’t?’ So, in other words, I’m very cautious about e-mailing.” Bush’s concerns may have been prescient. The trail of e-mails between Gonzales’ top deputies has been damaging to the Justice Department, as they provide a time-stamped record of some of the rationales for the firings � rationales that contradict what the deputies’ superiors told Congress under oath. But Bush and Gonzales aren’t alone in shunning e-mail to communicate with their subordinates. Former Attorney General Janet Reno also avoided computer communications, says former Reno spokesman Bert Brandenburg. “When you’re an executive at the stratosphere level, everyone has to pick what system works for them,” he says, pointing out that when Reno took office in 1993, e-mail was still relatively new. “If you don’t have e-mail, you have to make sure your staff is keeping you in the loop and up to speed.” Appearing to be out of the loop may well be the best option for Gonzales. It’s certainly a theme the Justice Department is pushing. “I would point out that there are very few references to him in the 3,000 pages,” writes Scolinos, in � you guessed it � an e-mail. MULTITASKING The next time Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee (if there is a next time), he’s sure to be asked about some statements he’s already made under oath. On Jan. 18, Gonzales sat before the committee, and in response to questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., firmly stated: “I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it.” In the weeks afterward, as news emerged that political factors were considerations in the firing of at least some of the prosecutors, it looked like Gonzales may have just stumbled while speaking extemporaneously under the bright lights of the committee hearing. But e-mails released by the Justice Department last week show Gonzales was apparently paraphrasing a talking point circulated by his top aides hours before he sat to testify. Just after 10 p.m., the night before Gonzales was due before the Judiciary Committee, staffer Elston sent a message labeled “Without Cause” to five other top Justice Department officials. “While I will not comment on any particular United States Attorney’s resignation, let me say this: I would never, never consent to the removal of a United States Attorney for political reasons,” Elston suggested in the second paragraph of the message. “Got it,” Sampson responded just minutes later. Sampson may have gotten the e-mail, but Gonzales clearly didn’t get the message, as his testimony was almost immediately contradicted by subsequent revelations. But he hasn’t been alone. In preparing to have William Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, face down six of the fired U.S. attorneys at a House subcommittee hearing on March 6, e-mails released last week show that top Justice aides compiled a list of criticisms for each of the fired prosecutors. For David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, one of the criticisms spelled out in an internal Justice memo reads: “There was a perception that he traveled a lot, but that even when he was in the office he still delegated a vast majority of the management to his First Assistant. We expect our U.S. Attorneys, particularly those in critical districts, to be hands-on managers working hard to advance the work of the Department.” Moschella hit that point at the hearing. “Mr. Iglesias had delegated to his first assistant the overall running of the office,” he said. “And quite frankly, U.S. attorneys are hired to run the office.” Internal e-mails released last week show that as recently as 2004, Iglesias had been labeled a “diverse up and comer” and considered for bigger jobs, including U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. But if Iglesias was on the road, he had company. Acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer, the Justice Department’s No. 3 official, is also the U.S. attorney for Montana. Mercer, who was heavily involved in the firing plan, has spent much of his time in Washington since taking over as a top aide to McNulty in June 2005. Currently, Mercer is awaiting Senate confirmation to the associate’s job on a permanent basis, at which time he’s indicated he’d leave his U.S. attorney post in Montana. But Mercer’s nomination doesn’t appear to be a priority of the Senate Judiciary Committee right now. “In order for the committee to conduct a full and fair consideration of Mr. Mercer’s nomination, it needs all the facts, including those that may arise as part of its investigation into the firing of several United States attorneys,” says Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Mercer isn’t the only U.S. attorney to have an office at Justice headquarters. From 2004 to 2005, Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, moonlighted as head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. And after Gonzales accepted the resignation of Sampson as his chief of staff earlier this month, he summoned Charles Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to take on a second job at Justice Department headquarters as Sampson’s interim replacement. Rosenberg also did a fly-by in Texas, serving as U.S attorney in Houston for nine months in 2005 and 2006. Jason McLure is a reporter with Legal Times, a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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