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Documents: Justice Department considered political credentials for prosecutors

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department weighed political activism and membership in a conservative law group in evaluating the nation’s federal prosecutors, documents released in the probe of fired U.S. attorney show.
    The political credentials were listed on a chart of all 124 U.S. attorneys nominated since 2001, a document that could bolster Democrats’ claims that the traditionally independent Justice Department has become more partisan during the Bush administration.
    The chart was included in documents released Friday by the department Friday to congressional panels investigating whether the firings last year of the U.S. attorneys were politically motivated — an inquiry that has Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fighting for his own job.
    ‘‘This is the chart that the AG requested,’’ Monica Goodling, Justice’s former liaison to the White House, wrote in a Feb. 12 e-mail to two other senior department officials. ‘‘I’ll show it to him on the plane tomorrow, if he’s interested.’’
    Goodling resigned last week, refusing to testify to Congress about her role in the firings and citing her constitutional protection against self-incrimination.
    The 2,394 pages of e-mails, schedules and memos released Friday included a few hand-scribbled pages of notes of reasons why some of the eight were ousted — notes that Justice officials confirmed were written by Goodling.
    Under Iglesias’ name, Goodling wrote: ‘‘Domenici says he doesn’t move cases’’ — a reference to Sen. Pete Domenici, the six-term Republican from New Mexico accused of pressuring the prosecutor on a political corruption investigation. That allegation has been one of the factors driving Democrats’ claims that the firings were politically motivated.
    The documents also included indications that senior department officials had replacements in mind for the outgoing prosecutors nearly a year before the ousters, seemingly contradicting testimony last month by Gonzales’ former top aide.
    The new batch of documents — adding to more than 3,400 previously released — came amid questions about missing White House e-mails, including some from presidential counselor Karl Rove and other administration officials. The Democratic-controlled Congress is seeking those e-mails as evidence for its inquiry into the firings.
    Private attorney Robert Luskin denied that Rove intentionally deleted his own e-mails from a Republican-sponsored computer system. He said President Bush’s political adviser believed the communications were being preserved in accordance with the law.
    Democrats are questioning whether any White House officials purposely sent e-mails about official business on the RNC server — then deleted them, in violation of the law — to avoid scrutiny.
    White House officials said the administration is making an aggressive effort to recover anything that was lost. ‘‘We have no indications that there was improper intent when using these RNC e-mails,’’ spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
    The new documents also show Justice efforts to tamp down the controversy by meeting with congressional aides they considered potentially sympathetic to their viewpoint — including a staffer to Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been one of Gonzales’ most vocal critics. Additionally, the documents include correspondence from some prosecutors complaining about being ensnared in the political storm.
    The chart underscores the weight that conservative credentials carried with the Justice Department.
    The three-page spreadsheet notes the ‘‘political experience’’ of each prosecutor, which was defined as work at the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, on Capitol Hill, for state or local officials, and on campaigns or for political parties.
    Several of the 124 prosecutors on the list were also members of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The group was founded by conservative law students and now claims 35,000 members, including prominent members of the Bush administration, the federal judiciary and Congress.
    How the information was used by the administration isn’t clear.
    One of the eight attorneys fired in December — Kevin Ryan, the prosecutor in San Francisco — was a Federalist Society member.
    Two others, David Iglesias in New Mexico and Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., had little political experience before being tapped as U.S. attorneys, the chart shows.
    The documents reveal a new contradiction in officials’ accounting of the firings, indicating that replacements for those dismissed were chosen by Justice officials nearly a year beforehand.
    Beginning with a January 2006 e-mail to White House Counsel Harriet Miers, former Justice chief of staff Kyle Sampson proposed replacing U.S. attorneys in San Diego, San Francisco, Michigan and Arkansas. The replacements were to include Rachel Brand, who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, to oust Margaret Chiara in Michigan, and Tim Griffin, a Rove protege who now is acting U.S. attorney in Arkansas.
    But Sampson, who resigned under fire last month, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29 that ‘‘I did not have in mind any replacements for any of the seven who were asked to resign’’ last Dec. 7.
    Gonzales is to explain his role in the firings to the same panel next Tuesday — an appearance that even Republicans say is crucial to restoring his shaky credibility amid growing calls for his resignation.
    ‘‘The contradictions continue to pile up,’’ Schumer told reporters Friday. ‘‘The questions for the attorney general continue to mount.’’
    Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse maintained that, except for Griffin, no replacements were selected before the prosecutors were told to resign.
    ‘‘The list, drafted ten months before the December resignations, reflects Kyle Sampson’s initial thoughts, not preselected candidates by the administration,’’ Roehrkasse said. ‘‘Sampson’s initial thoughts were just that.’’
    Sampson attorney Brad Berenson said his clients’ testimony was ‘‘entirely accurate.’’ He said that ‘‘some names had been tentatively suggested for discussion much earlier in the process, but by the time the decision to ask for the resignations was made, none had been chosen to serve as a replacement.’’
    House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers said the new documents ‘‘were not a complete response to our subpoena request,’’
    ‘‘I expect that the attorney general, as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, will be respectful of his obligations under the committee’s subpoena and respond in full by Monday,’’ said Conyers, D-Mich.
    Some of the documents released could prove embarrassing.
    An Oct. 2, 2006, e-mail to Brand, for example, derides Chiara as ‘‘Miss Margaret,’’ an insensitive manager who announced in an all-staff meeting which employees would be receiving bonuses and outstanding staff evaluations. The sender’s name on the e-mail was stripped from the document.
    And in a Feb. 28, 2007, e-mail, Griffin complained to Justice headquarters that he was being maligned as a White House pawn in the media.
    ‘‘Someone at DOJ left the press with the impression that Harriet Miers vouching for me was some sort of extraordinary event,’’ Griffin wrote to three senior Justice officials. ‘‘It wasn’t.’’
    Responded Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling: ‘‘Not sure your assertion is accurate. Someone at DOJ merely recounted the facts. ... Your point is well taken, however, in that we need to emphasize the normalcy of the process in your case. I think we are ready to do that.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Matt Apuzzo and Pete Yost contributed to this report.

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