When Politics Is Performance

March 30, 2007 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

By Sarah Wheaton NY TIMES

There is little difference between politics and performance, D. Kyle Sampson told a Senate panel today. But can a move that’s largely political, though not necessarily partisan, pass the smell test? As the recently resigned chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales both contradicted and defended his boss today, the nuance of his claim became apparent in the context of the ouster of Carol C. Lam, one of eight United States attorneys whose dismissals called into question the credibility of the Bush Justice Department.

“The distinction between political- and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,” Mr. Sampson said in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective, either because he or she has alienated the leadership of the department in Washington or cannot work constructively with law enforcement or other governmental constituencies in the district, is unsuccessful.”

He added, “The limited category of improper reasons includes an effort to interfere with or influence the investigation or prosecution of a particular case for political or partisan advantage.”

That is, of course, precisely the Democrats’ accusation. During the voluntary testimony, Mr. Sampson denied the charge, but took responsibility for the department’s “badly mishandled” response. Here’s The Times’s coverage of the hearing.

The case of Ms. Lam, the former U.S. attorney in San Diego, is among the most high-profile. She was in charge of the public corruption investigation into former Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a Republican, and she had broadened the probe shortly before being let go. Indeed, the day after she informed the Justice Department that she was seeking a search warrant for two new figures, Mr. Sampson wrote an email about the “real problem we have right now with Carol Lam” that heightened the need to replace her as soon as her term expired.

Mr. Sampson denied knowing about her warrant notification and said he was referring to her failure to adequately pursue immigration cases.

He elaborated later in the day-long hearing in an exchange with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a freshman Rhode Island Democrat and former U.S. attorney:

MR. WHITEHOUSE: And I ask you, with respect to the immigration prosecutions undertaken by her district, what was the problem “right now” that fits into that temporal urgency that is — that is described in your e-mail? What “right now” made something different about the immigration thing?

MR. SAMPSON: What I remember was going on at that time was there was a robust debate going on in the Congress about comprehensive immigration reform, and a robust debate going on within the administration about how the administration could show that we were doing everything we could with regard to securing the border. I remember…

MR. WHITEHOUSE: So the problem was not so much a change in her conduct, as with outside atmospherics that affected your view of the importance of the immigration issue?

MR. SAMPSON: I remember the attorney general felt some exposure because the department was being criticized soundly for not doing enough to enforce the border. And there was a debate going on in the administration about how to show that the administration was doing more to enforce the border. And at that very time there was discussion between the department and the White House about the notion of militarizing the border. And in fact, on May 15 the president announced that he was going to send National Guard troops to the border.

I remember also that — I believe at around that time, I think even on May 11 there was a meeting that had been scheduled to meet with House Republicans who had expressed concern about border enforcement, with either the attorney general or the deputy attorney general.

I don’t know that that meeting ever happened. But I remember, at the time, there was real discussion, in the senior management offices of the Department of Justice, about how we could fix that problem, how we could get some immigration deliverables.

And I remember, at our senior management meeting, some time in the weeks before that, there was a specific discussion about the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.

And Bill Mercer, who, I think, at the time, was the principal associate deputy attorney general, came to the meeting and had pulled a bunch of statistics from the sentencing commission, comparing the offices along the Southwest border, and was adamant about Carol Lam and that office’s failure to understand what was going on politically and reorient resources to bring more border enforcement, notwithstanding the fact that she had been the recipient of a lot of criticism from members of Congress.

And there was a view expressed, at the time, that Ms. Lam just had her own independent views about what kind of cases she wanted that office to work on, and had not pushed her office to follow the attorney general’s priorities with regard to immigration. And also, in the background of that, was with gun cases.

The administration has a long way to go before persuading Democrats that it was performance on the issue of immigration, and not the corruption case against Republicans, that motivated Ms. Lam’s dismissal. But would it even matter? Is prosecutorial independence, as Mr. Whitehouse claimed, the higher value, or is it more important to let the president wield his authority to achieve policy and political priorities within his own administration? Is there a difference between policy and political priorities? What do you think?


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