Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified Thursday, April 19, that he was unaware of the Justice Department's plan to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year, and he expressed his concern about low morale developing at the department as the controversy over the firings drags on.
The political firestorm over who decided to fire the attorneys has been growing since it was disclosed that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was in close communication with the White House Counsel's office about which U.S. attorneys should be fired.
Sampson resigned in March.
With the continuing controversy now spanning more than three months, and with calls for Gonzales to resign coming from both political parties, Comey described the atmosphere at Justice Department headquarters. "Certainly, it has caused a morale hit here at Main Justice, the mothership," he said. "But I hope it doesn't affect that which is essential about this institution, and that is the ability to do good every day and to protect people and to help people."
Comey had nothing but praise for five of the U.S. attorneys who were fired at the end of last year, and said he had no knowledge of significant problems with most of those who were fired, except for management problems charged to Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. attorney in San Francisco.
Comey lauded the former U.S. attorney from Seattle for his efforts to promote information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
"John McKay was one of my favorites," Comey said.
About David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, Comey said, "I thought he was very effective. I, obviously -- as with the others, I knew him as a colleague first and then as his boss, and had a very positive view of him."
The former No. 2 man at the Justice Department said of Daniel Bogden, former U.S. attorney in Nevada, "He is as straight as a Nevada highway, and a fired-up guy. ... He was loved in that community. ... He had made tremendous strides on violent crime. I thought he was very good."
"I thought he was a very strong U.S. attorney; one of the best," Comey said about Paul Charlton the former U.S. attorney in Arizona.
Comey said that in 2004, he did mention to the former San Diego U.S. attorney Carol Lam that she needed to focus more on gun prosecutions, one of the priorities laid out by the Department of Justice, but said that she was "a fine U.S. attorney."
Citing the issues concerning Kevin Ryan, Comey said, "A lot of people have been hurt in this process, and I don't mean to hurt Mr. Ryan. ... He's a fine guy. He just had management challenges in that office that were fairly serious. But I hope he's landed on his feet and is doing well."
Comey said he was not very familiar with Bud Cummins, the former U.S attorney in Arkansas, who was the first to be asked to leave in the summer of 2006.
"He and his district had not crossed my radar screen, which, from the deputy's perspective, is actually a very good thing. Bad things tend to reach the deputy, and so, if you didn't reach me, you must be doing OK," Comey said.
Cummins was replaced by Tim Griffin, a former aide to top White House political adviser Karl Rove.
The committee did not ask about ousted Michigan U.S. attorney Margaret Chiara, and Comey did not mention her during his testimony.
Comey testified that he never saw a list of the U.S. attorneys who had been fired, and that he had been asked by former Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief of staff and Gonzales former chief of staff Sampson to comment on which U.S. attorneys were weak or underperforming.
Comey, who left the Justice Department in the summer 2005 and now works for Lockheed Martin, testified that he did have a February 2005 meeting with Sampson. "It was a 15-minute meeting. Two topics were covered, as I recall. And one was him asking me, as best I can recall, who did I think were the weakest U.S. attorneys."
Comey, who also served as a prosecutor in Virginia before becoming the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, described the efforts of the department and his hope that the current controversy did not damage its work.
"The Department of Justice is made up of 110,000 people who you don't see if you're in Washington. ... And when you visit those people, they are a fired-up group. They love doing good for a living ... whenever people talk about morale, the great hope for the Department of Justice, even as morale may have been hurt by this, is that those fired-up people who love what they do still love it and are not going to let anything get in the way of that."
Gonzales has met with more than 70 of the 93 U.S. attorneys from around the country to hear their concerns and express his commitment to the department. In the next two weeks, Gonzales is expected to attend an annual conference of U.S. attorneys from around the country.
Before that conference, Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. Gonzales' April 17 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee undercut support from members of Congress, though Gonzales has maintained continued support from President Bush.
Even though senior Justice Department officials have been interviewed by House and Senate Judiciary Committee staffers, and the Department has released more than 3,000 pages of internal e-mails, it is unclear who designed the list of the fired U.S. attorneys.
Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at the hearing, "Mr. Gonzales has told us that it was not him. Mr. Kyle Sampson has denied making the substantive judgments. We've interviewed senior officials in the department, and all deny making the actual decision to place the names on the list. The role of the White House remains elusive."