What the Justice Department's inspector general report on U.S. attorney firings really means.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 29 2008 6:16 PM

Where the Trail Leads Next

What does the inspector general's report on U.S. attorney firings really mean for the Justice Department?

Alberto Gonzales. Click image to expand.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

For those of us who had been waiting over a year to learn the connection between the abrupt firing of nine U.S. attorneys and the assorted muck-a-mucks who run the Bush administration, the release this morning of the inspector general's report (PDF) was anticlimactic. In light of massive obstruction by the White House (which brazenly refused to turn over internal documents) and other "key witnesses," (including Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, Monica Goodling, Pete Domenici, and Domenici's chief of staff, Steven Bell), the gist of the IG's investigation—done in conjunction with the Office of Professional Responsibility—was that somebody with the authority to compel testimony and the release of documents seriously needs to do an investigation.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Still, 392 pages on, the document itself makes for some great reading. It concludes that there is "significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several US Attorneys." It  paints former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his former deputy Paul McNulty as having been totally checked out, having "abdicated their responsibility to adequately oversee the process" while underlings like Kyle Sampson merrily consulted a "dog-eared" chart he was constantly revising, destroying, and re-creating. While the report does not unearth any criminal wrongdoing, it finds that "the most serious allegation that we were not able to fully investigate related to the removal of David Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, and the allegation that he was removed to influence voter fraud and public corruption prosecutions. We recommend that a counsel specially appointed by the Attorney General assess the facts we have uncovered, work with us to conduct further investigation, and ultimately determine whether the evidence demonstrates that any criminal offense was committed with regard to the removal of Iglesias."

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The report indicates that investigators "found evidence that complaints to Rove and others at the White House and the Department by New Mexico Republican political officials and party activists about how Iglesias was handling voter fraud cases and a public corruption case led to Iglesias's removal."

The report finds that Gonzales approved the removals of a group of U.S. attorneys "without inquiring about the process Sampson used to select them for removal, or why each name was on Sampson's removal list. Gonzales also did not know who Sampson had consulted with or what these individuals had said about each of the U.S. Attorneys identified for removal." Investigators also found that "Sampson's repeated assertion that 'underperformance' was the decisive factor in the removal process was misleading." Investigators learned that some of the fired U.S. attorneys (like Nevada's Dan Bogden) were placed on Sampson's list based on Monica Goodling's unsupported suggestion. John McKay, from Washington, similarly appears to have been put on the list by some specter.

The evidence indicates that in at least three of the firings, "the White House was more involved than merely approving the removal of presidential appointees as Department officials initially stated."

The report faults Gonzales et al. for failing "to provide accurate and truthful statements about the removals and their role in the process" (i.e., they lied). Among other things, the IG found that Gonzales "claimed to us and to Congress an extraordinary lack of recollection about the entire removal process. In his most remarkable claim, he testified that he did not remember the meeting in his conference room on November 27, 2006, when the plan was finalized and he approved the removals of the U.S. Attorneys, even though this important meeting occurred only a few months prior to his testimony."

The report also concludes that Kyle Sampson's system for determining who was fired was "casual, ad hoc, and anecdotal, and he did not develop any consensus from Department officials about which U.S. Attorneys should be removed."

In light of the report, Attorney General Michael Mukasey was quick to appoint a prosecutor (but apparently not a "special" one) to look into this mess. This is a dramatic departure for Mukasey, who has largely spent his time in office pretending that whatever happened at the Justice Department prior to his arrival was either someone else's problem or not, in fact, a problem at all. Having somehow set the reset button on the entire department, he has frequently chastised critics of the Bush administration for their vengeful ways. He recently asserted that (in response to an equally damning IG report) that "not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime." And he's taken the position (in the same speech) that those responsible for misconduct have perhaps been punished enough (having already suffered "substantial negative publicity"). 

One thing the appointment of a prosecutor virtually guarantees is that we will still be talking about the U.S. attorney firings long after President Bush has packed up his David Addington bobblehead doll and vacated the White House. And that means, in at least one context, that the Michael Mukasey argument that lawlessness ends on the day when wrongdoers leave office might finally be put to rest. It would make for a much cleaner story if everything that went wrong at Justice could be pinned on poor, hapless Kyle Sampson and forgotten. But that's not the story the IG report tells. What's really gone wrong here lies largely in the behavior of Sampson's bosses who were either asleep at the switch or happy to leave him hanging out to dry on the theory that only the stupid testify. It's a theory that's catching on rather quickly.

The importance of today's report isn't so much in the details of who did what to whom. It's in the "gaps" at the top and the promise that after November, somebody might still care.