Thursday, May 03, 2007

Prosecutors' boss was out of the loop

Today it's the House's turn to air embarassing revelations in the prosecutor firing scandal.

The Justice Department's former No. 2 official testified Thursday he was unaware of plans to fire underperforming U.S. attorneys and praised all but one of the eight whose dismissals are now being investigated by Congress.

Jim Comey, a Republican appointee who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, said he had one 15-minute conversation during his tenure about prosecutors who were considered weak managers. Only one of the eight who were ultimately fired — Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. attorney in San Francisco — fit that description, Comey said.

There's a bit less here than meets the eye. In February 2005, Gonzales' team had just come on board and Comey would announce plans to leave the department two months later. Knowing that he would be leaving, it's not surprising that Gonzales and Sampson would exclude him from much of the planning -- and thus he wouldn't know much about it.

That said, completely ignoring Comey is just weird. Put yourself in Gonzales' shoes for a moment: You've just taken over the Justice Department, and one of the first things you want to do is evaluate prosecutors for possible replacement. Neither you nor your chief deputies have firsthand knowledge of the prosecutors' performance during the five years preceding your arrival. So how best to get a handle on their effectiveness?

You would, of course, examine their arrest and trial statistics, as well as seeking feedback from homestate politicians and other observers. But you'd also talk to the man who was the prosecutors' boss for the period in question, wouldn't you? Doesn't that seem like a logical move?

It does -- if your evaluation is grounded in their legal performance. But it's pretty much unnecessary if your criteria is something else -- like political reliability.

On the other hand, Comey said he never spoke with Karl Rove and had only limited contact with Harriet Miers, suggesting that -- prior to Gonzales' arrival, at least -- the White House had limited contacts within Justice.

All in all, Comey came across as a standup guy who wasn't interested in politicizing the department. He's also, by the way, the guy who as Acting Attorney General refused to certify certain aspects of the NSA eavesdropping program in 2004 because he considered them illegal. In retrospect it's too bad he didn't stick around at Justice. It sounds like he was one of the few adults in the building.

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