The Department of Justice announced yesterday that, at an annual awards ceremony, it had given an award for "Outstanding Professionalism and Exemplary Integrity" to David Margolis.
Why is that noteworthy?
Margolis, who has been at DOJ since 1965 and now serves as Associate Deputy Attorney General, makes frequent appearances in the report on the US Attorney firings released earlier this month by DOJ's Office of the Inspector General.
By and large, the report depicts Margolis as a respected career DOJ-er, who was largely out of the loop on many of the details of the scheme to fire US Attorneys for political reasons.
But it also shows that right before the firings, Kyle Sampson, the point man on the plan, showed Margolis -- whose informal biography, says the report, listed one of his duties as being a liaison between main DOJ and the US Attorneys -- a list of six of the US Attorneys to be fired. Margolis had earlier recommended to Sampson that two US Attorneys -- Kevin Ryan and Dunn Lampton -- be fired for legitimate performance-based reasons, but neither one appeared on Sampson's list. And yet, says the report, Margolis neither raised any objections, nor asked Sampson about how the list was drawn up.
From the report's conclusion:
In November 2006, when Sampson advised Margolis about the impending removals, he either showed Margolis a list or read from a list of six U.S. Attorneys that Sampson indicated were to be removed. Margolis told us that he was struck more by the names Sampson did not mention than the ones he did. Margolis asked Sampson why Ryan and Lampton were not on the removal list, and Sampson responded that he would look into it. Based on Margolis's and McNulty's suggestion, Ryan was subsequently added to the list.
However, Margolis told us that he did not think to question Sampson about the six U.S. Attorneys who were on Sampson's list. Margolis said he was more focused on the names that were omitted and assumed Sampson had valid reasons for the six slated for removal.
Margolis is the senior career attorney in the Department and someone who had significant knowledge about U.S. Attorneys and their performance. He was involved in panel interviews for the selection of most U.S. Attorneys, and as part of his duties handles misconduct allegations involving U.S. Attorneys. He is highly respected within the Department, and his opinion was valued because of his experience and stature.
Yet, prior to the removals, he never questioned Sampson concerning why the specific U.S. Attorneys slated for removal were chosen or what process was used to select them. We believe that under these circumstances - an unprecedented dismissal of a group of U.S. Attorneys at one time allegedly for performance reasons - Margolis should have raised questions about the list and the process used to identify the names to ensure there were no improper reasons and that the Department was following a defensible process for the removals. But Margolis never raised those issues, and instead focused solely on seeking to ensure that Ryan was added to the removal list.
We recognize that the decision to remove the U.S. Attorneys was not Margolis's to make. But given his position, we believe he should have asked Sampson, McNulty, or other senior Department leaders about the removal process. This is particularly true given that this removal of U.S. Attorneys was unprecedented, and it did not appear from the names on Sampson's list that the U.S. Attorneys Margolis thought were weak had been included.
The report also quotes from Margolis' subsequent testimony to Congress, in which he acknowledged he should have done more:
I should say that I am a bit exasperated by my role here because I'm the only one of all the people involved who knows how to fire a United States Attorney or a Marshal based on experience. And I was not aggressive enough or vigilant enough, and I should have done a number of things, I should have inserted myself. I was too passive, and I'd like to, I think--and I hold myself accountable for this--that if I had stepped in and said something, that maybe this would have been - we would have handled this better...
The report further concludes:
We believe that given Margolis's experience, position, and stature he was too deferential to others on this important and unprecedented removal of U.S. Attorneys. Had he raised questions, as he acknowledged he should have, the damage to the Department by the fundamentally flawed removal process might have been mitigated.
Margolis was clearly a long way from being the main villain in the US Attorneys saga. But he didn't exactly cover himself with glory in the affair.
And he certainly didn't demonstrate "Outstanding Professionalism and Exemplary Integrity" -- the qualities for which he's just been honored.