Carol Lam, the former United States attorney for San Diego, is smart and tireless and was very good at her job. Her investigation of Representative Randy Cunningham resulted in a guilty plea for taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors and a sentence of more than eight years. Two weeks ago, she indicted Kyle Dustin Foggo, the former No. 3 official in the C.I.A. The defense-contracting scandal she pursued so vigorously could yet drag in other politicians.
In many Justice Departments, her record would have won her awards, and perhaps a promotion to a top post in Washington. In the Bush Justice Department, it got her fired.
Ms. Lam is one of at least seven United States attorneys fired recently under questionable circumstances. The Justice Department is claiming that Ms. Lam and other well-regarded prosecutors like John McKay of Seattle, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona — who all received strong job evaluations — performed inadequately.
It is hard to call what’s happening anything other than a political purge. And it’s another shameful example of how in the Bush administration, everything — from rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged city to allocating homeland security dollars to invading Iraq — is sacrificed to partisan politics and winning elections.
U.S. attorneys have enormous power. Their decision to investigate or indict can bankrupt a business or destroy a life. They must be, and long have been, insulated from political pressures. Although appointed by the president, once in office they are almost never asked to leave until a new president is elected. The Congressional Research Service has confirmed how unprecedented these firings are. It found that of 486 U.S. attorneys confirmed since 1981, perhaps no more than three were forced out in similar ways — three in 25 years, compared with seven in recent months.
It is not just the large numbers. The firing of H. E. Cummins III is raising as many questions as Ms. Lam’s. Mr. Cummins, one of the most distinguished lawyers in Arkansas, is respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. But he was forced out to make room for J. Timothy Griffin, a former Karl Rove deputy with thin legal experience who did opposition research for the Republican National Committee. (Mr. Griffin recently bowed to the inevitable and said he will not try for a permanent appointment. But he remains in office indefinitely.)
The Bush administration cleared the way for these personnel changes by slipping a little-noticed provision into the Patriot Act last year that allows the president to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period without Senate confirmation.
Three theories are emerging for why these well-qualified U.S. attorney were fired — all political, and all disturbing.
1. Helping friends. Ms. Lam had already put one powerful Republican congressman in jail and was investigating other powerful politicians. The Justice Department, unpersuasively, claims that it was unhappy about Ms. Lam’s failure to bring more immigration cases. Meanwhile, Ms. Lam has been replaced with an interim prosecutor whose résumé shows almost no criminal law experience, but includes her membership in the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
2. Candidate recruitment. U.S. attorney is a position that can make headlines and launch political careers. Congressional Democrats suspect that the Bush administration has been pushing out long-serving U.S. attorneys to replace them with promising Republican lawyers who can then be run for Congress and top state offices.
3. Presidential politics. The Justice Department concedes that Mr. Cummins was doing a good job in Little Rock. An obvious question is whether the administration was more interested in his successor’s skills in opposition political research — let’s not forget that Arkansas has been lucrative fodder for Republicans in the past — in time for the 2008 elections.
The charge of politics certainly feels right. This administration has made partisanship its lodestar. The Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran revealed in his book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” that even applicants to help administer post-invasion Iraq were asked whom they voted for in 2000 and what they thought of Roe v. Wade.
Congress has been admirably aggressive about investigating. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, held a tough hearing. And he is now talking about calling on the fired U.S. attorneys to testify and subpoenaing their performance evaluations — both good ideas.
The politicization of government over the last six years has had tragic consequences — in New Orleans, Iraq and elsewhere. But allowing politics to infect U.S. attorney offices takes it to a whole new level. Congress should continue to pursue the case of the fired U.S. attorneys vigorously, both to find out what really happened and to make sure that it does not happen again.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company