WASHINGTON — The day news broke that a federal corruption probe in Southern California was spreading to Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, the chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales fired off an e-mail to the White House about the federal prosecutor who had begun the investigation.
"The real problem we have right now is Carol Lam," D. Kyle Sampson told White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley on May 11. "That leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires."
'THE REAL PROBLEM WE HAVE RIGHT NOW IS CAROL LAM'
Former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 6, 2007, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on politicization in the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys. ( AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Sampson's e-mail did not mention Lewis (R-Redlands) or the corruption probe.
By the end of the year, Lam — the U.S. attorney in San Diego — had become one of eight federal prosecutors notified that they were being replaced.
Now congressional committees run by Democrats are investigating the terminations and exploring whether the Bush administration targeted Lam for political reasons or because she was lax in prosecuting border crimes, as some Justice officials have asserted.
Leading Democrats on Wednesday charged that the timing of Sampson's e-mail was no coincidence.
"It's clear from the e-mail sent by Mr. Sampson to the White House
that Carol Lam was investigating and prosecuting public corruption, and the Justice Department and the White House didn't like it," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "It appears Carol Lam was fired for doing her job."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a series of five questions to President Bush on Wednesday, asking for more information about the timing of the Sampson e-mail and the corruption investigations into Lewis and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).
Justice officials did not return phone calls from The Times seeking comment.
E-mails and other Bush administration documents made public this week show conflicting messages from Washington officials about Lam's performance.
Sometimes they criticized her for not doing enough to prosecute illegal immigration. Indeed, Sampson thought Lam should be "woodshedded" for her shortcomings on immigration enforcement.
Other times, officials at Justice and the Department of Homeland Security praised her work. In August, just months after Sampson had placed Lam on a working list of those to be fired, Assistant Atty. Gen. William E. Moschella — Sampson's boss — commended her for doubling the number of immigration-related prosecutions.
Lam's office, Moschella wrote to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "has devoted substantial resources to investigating and prosecuting border corruption cases which pose a serious threat to both national security and continuing immigration violations."
Bush appointed Lam as U.S. attorney in San Diego in 2002, and the hallmark of her tenure was the successful prosecution of Cunningham. Last March, the former Republican lawmaker was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for bribery and tax evasion.
On May 11 — the month after Sampson told the White House counsel's office that Lam was being targeted for dismissal — The Times reported that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles had begun an investigation into Lewis. They were trying to connect Lewis, who at that time chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee, to a Washington lobbyist linked to the Cunningham bribery case, The Times said.
Shortly before noon Washington time that day, Sampson e-mailed Kelley to complain about Lam.
The Lewis probe was an extension of the case Lam started in San Diego. But it was being handled by the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles because Lewis' Redlands headquarters falls under its purview.
Debra Wong Yang, then the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said Wednesday that she was befuddled that anyone in Washington would be upset with Lam over a case being pursued in Los Angeles. "I'm not sure I understand the link," she said.
One of those under review was Brent R. Wilkes, a defense contractor tied to Cunningham and Lewis. While the Los Angeles case continued, Lam announced bribery charges against Wilkes in San Diego last month — just days before she left office.
Lewis said Wednesday that he had not sought to influence the case. "I have never personally contacted the White House or the Department of Justice or any U.S. attorney regarding any of these investigations," he said.
As the California bribery probe was expanding, the administration was raising questions about Lam's track record on prosecuting immigration cases.
On May 31, 2006, Sampson wrote another e-mail to William Mercer, acting associate attorney general, complaining about Lam's performance. "Has [Justice] ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement?" he asked. "Has anyone."
A job evaluation a year earlier had pointed out that the number of immigration prosecutions coming out of her office was "statistically lower" than those of other Southwest border districts. She also came under scrutiny from Feinstein, who in June complained to the Justice Department that "lax prosecution can endanger the lives of Border Patrol agents, particularly if highly organized and violent smugglers move their operations to the area."
In August, Moschella responded to Feinstein by defending the performance of Lam's office in prosecuting border crime.
Lam was notified Dec. 7 that she was being terminated. In House and Senate hearings last week, she testified that she still does not know why.
Was it her job performance?
"I honestly don't know," she told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Was it border cases?
"I thought we were getting good results and putting very bad people, criminal recidivists, away," she said.
Or was it her office's prosecution of Cunningham and, as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) asked her, because prosecutors were "hot on the trail of others involved?"
"I did not receive any communication directly from the department about it being related to the investigation," she said.
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