Although the Bush administration has said that six U.S. attorneys were fired recently in part because of "performance related" issues, at least five of them received positive job evaluations before they were ordered to step down.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, using authority he gained in March from a little-noticed provision of the Patriot Act, has appointed interim U.S. attorneys from the Bush administration's inner circle. The firings and appointments have raised concerns that Gonzales is politicizing the process.
Supporters of the U.S. attorneys and Justice Department officials familiar with the job evaluations suggested in interviews that top Justice Department officials may have exaggerated the role job performance played in the firings.
A Justice Department official who spoke on behalf of the administration said the dispute might simply be a matter of "semantics."
"Performance-related can mean many things," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because the Privacy Act bars officials from discussing personnel decisions. "Policy is set at a national level. Individual U.S. attorneys around the country can't just make up their policy agenda."
Performance reviews of U.S. attorneys are conducted every three to four years by a team of experienced Justice Department officials, who interview judges, staff members, community leaders and federal agents. In some of the five cases, the reviewers made recommendations for improvements, but overall their assessments were positive, Justice Department officials said.
For instance, Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney in Nevada, was described in his last job performance evaluation in 2003 as being a "capable" leader who was highly regarded by the federal judiciary and investigators.
"He didn't get any dings," said a Justice Department official with knowledge of the review. "The overall evaluation was very positive."
David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, also received a positive evaluation last year, according to another Justice Department official.
Both officials asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized by the Justice Department to release the information.
The other U.S. attorneys who received good reviews were John McKay, the former U.S. attorney in Seattle; Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Arizona; and Carol Lam, the current U.S. attorney in San Diego.
McKay, who stepped down recently, said in an interview that his positive review in May 2006 didn't explain his ouster, nor did the phone call he received in December from a Justice Department official who ordered him to resign.
"I was not told that it was related to my performance," he said.
Lam was described in her 2005 evaluation as "well respected" by law enforcement officials, judges and her staff. Overall the review was positive.
"We're not aware of any significant issues," said another Justice Department official, who also asked not to be identified. Lam is leaving office Feb. 15.
Officials with the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona said Charlton received his last review in December 2005. He was described as being respected by his staff, federal investigators, judges and Native American leaders for "his integrity, professionalism and competence."
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty is scheduled to brief senators privately on the reasons for the firings.
Tasia Scolinos, a chief spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the removals were the result of a "careful, thoughtful" decision-making process.
"This issue really boils down to the department's reasons for making internal management changes," she said.
The decision to fire the U.S. attorneys came under scrutiny late last month after Senate Democrats discovered a change in the Patriot Act that allowed Gonzales to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms without Senate approval.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, McNulty conceded that H.E. "Bud" Cummins, the former U.S. attorney in Arkansas, wasn't fired because of how he handled his job. Rather, McNulty said, administration officials wanted to make room for Timothy Griffin, a former aide of presidential adviser Karl Rove.
Pressed to explain the other firings, McNulty said they were motivated by a "range of reasons" and were "performance-related."
He also emphasized that the Justice Department had wide latitude because U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president.
"We don't believe that we have an obligation to set forth a certain standard or reason or a cause when it comes to removal," he said.
McNulty cautioned the senators that the evaluations might not explain the firings.
"That's just one way of measuring someone's performance," he said. "And much of this is subjective and won't be apparent in the form of some report that was done two or three years ago."
In an interview for the Arizona Republic's Saturday edition, Charlton said he was fired for "principled reasons, not performance issues."
Charlton declined to comment on the matter, but his supporters said he clashed with the administration over the handling of death penalty cases. Charlton objected to automatically recommending the death penalty for certain crimes, said Grant Woods, a former attorney general in Arizona.
"Paul felt it was one of the main reasons" he was fired, Woods, a Republican, told McClatchy.
Woods said it was "misleading" for the administration to describe Charlton's firing as performance-related. "A conflict over policy is different than poor performance," he said.
Justice Department officials are now completing the evaluation of Kevin Ryan, who's being forced to step down as San Francisco U.S. attorney.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources