Feinstein: Administration forcing resignation of seven U.S. attorneys

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) lambasted the Bush administration yesterday, saying it is forcing several U.S. attorneys to step down from their posts in order to cherry-pick new political appointments without Senate confirmation.

On the Senate floor yesterday afternoon, Feinstein scrutinized the activities of the administration, which she says has asked seven U.S. attorneys to resign, without evidence of misconduct.

“The attorney general can nominate someone who [then] goes in without any confirmation hearing by this body and serves as U.S. attorney for the remainder of the president’s term in office,” Feinstein said. “This is a way, simply stated, of avoiding Senate confirmation of a United States attorney.”

In last year’s reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a provision was changed to allow interim appointees to serve indefinitely, instead of limiting an appointed U.S. attorney’s tenure to 120 days. Previously, the Department of Justice (DoJ) could appoint an interim U.S. attorney and, after a period of 120 days, a district judge could influence who was chosen for the position.

Two of the U.S. attorneys forced to resign were from California; the others were from New Mexico, Nevada, Arkansas, Texas, Washington and Arizona, Feinstein said.

She noted that Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for Southern California involved in the probe of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), recently resigned.

Rumor has it that Lam has other cases in which members of Congress have been subpoenaed, Feinstein said.

But she admitted to knowing little of the circumstances surrounding Lam’s departure. “The only explanation I’ve seen are concerns that were expressed about prioritizing public corruption cases over smuggling and gun cases,” the senator said.

U.S. Attorney H.E. Bud Cummins, of Little Rock, Ark., recently was replaced by Timothy Griffin, a former White House lawyer who has worked for the Republican National Committee.

“The United States attorney’s job is too important for there to be unnecessary disruptions or, worse, any appearance of undue influence,” Feinstein said. “At a time when we’re talking about toughening the consequences for public corruption, I believe we should change the law to ensure that our top prosecutors who are taking these cases are free from interference or the appearance of impropriety.”

Last week, Feinstein, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) introduced legislation that would restore “the statute to what it once was” and give the “authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys back to the district court where the vacancy arises,” Feinstein said on the Senate floor.

“I’ve been told that this really interrupts the flow of the prosecution of these cases, to have the present U.S. attorney be forced to resign,” she added.

Feinstein today plans to question U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the issue at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, the DoJ upheld its process, saying that Senate confirmation was a top priority.

“We are fully committed and it is in our best interest to have a U.S. attorney that is confirmed by the Senate,” DoJ spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. “It is inconceivable for a member of Congress to believe that use of an appointment authority to fill a vacancy is in any way an attempt to circumvent the confirmation process.”