When Justice Department leadership asked Paul Charlton, then a U.S. attorney in Arizona, in December of 2006 to submit a resignation from his post by the following month, it did not cross the longtime prosecutor’s mind that the request might have had to do with an investigation into a Republican House member his office was leading.
Charlton and his DOJ higher-ups had butted heads over policy issues like the death penalty and taped interrogations. And there had been tensions over how he was going about the probe into Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) as well.
“It never occurred to me that there might be a political motivation behind that decision,” Charlton recalled to TPM last month.
“It really wasn’t until later on that the facts began to say otherwise.”
Those facts, which Charlton began to piece together when he learned that several other U.S. attorneys had been asked to resign that day, pointed to an extensive and thoroughly planned out scheme to remove prosecutors who were refusing to do the political bidding of powerful Republicans.
The pattern of U.S. attorneys being quietly asked to leave their posts, just after the White House had received more discretion to replace those prosecutors with partisan allies, snowballed into an overwhelming controversy that culminated in congressional hearings, the emergence of damning documents and, ultimately, the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The administration’s attempt to discreetly purge nearly a dozen top prosecutors now seems somewhat quaint by the standards of Donald Trump’s presidency, when Cabinet officials on down were routinely fired by tweet, the President explicitly demanded that the Justice Department go after his political rivals, and false conspiracy theories about mass election fraud consumed the final months of the administration.
“If this happened today, just to game it out, the suspicion is that they’re weaponizing the DOJ for their own political ends,” recalled Paul Kiel, a former TPM reporter, now at ProPublica, who helped break the story. “To which they would say, yeah sure, or, what are you going to do about it.”
But at the time the U.S. attorney dismissal scandal was an unprecedented breach in the rule of law and the reputation of independence imbued at the Justice Department. It also helped establish TPM as a major, new player on the political and media landscape — our coverage of it won a Polk Award.
“I can remember many a morning, the first thing I would read is TPM to see what you all had discovered,” Charlton said.
The roots of the scandal date back not to December 7, 2006, when Charlton and six other U.S. attorneys received phone calls asking for their resignations — but nearly a year prior, when Bush administration officials first began testing the limits of ousting well regarded U.S. attorneys without attracting too much attention
The removal of Western Missouri U.S. Attorney Todd Graves provided a test case. He was asked to resign in January 2006 by a top DOJ official, who told Graves that it was time to “give another person a chance.”
Graves stepped down in March. In June, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas Bud Cummins received a similar call, but did not agree to go quite as quickly as Graves absent a reason for his dismissal.
The explanation didn’t come until several months later, when the DOJ issued a press release on Dec. 20 naming Karl Rove aide Timothy Griffin as Cummins’s replacement while the prosecutor was away on a hike with his son. Cummins resigned five days later.
With those initial personnel moves not causing much of a stir, the White House and the political leadership atop the DOJ went forward with a much broader plot to reshape the U.S. attorneys’ ranks, ridding it of prosecutors not perceived to be “loyal bushies,” as one email from a DOJ official to a White House lawyer put it.
By December 2006, they had settled on seven other U.S. attorneys to be removed from their posts.
Among them was the San Diego-based Carol Lam, whose bribery probe of Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) resulted in a plea deal and his resignation from Congress. Publicly, the White House’s partisan allies attacked her for supposedly going soft on immigration enforcement, while privately, the Cunningham investigation had expanded to include another Republican member of the House and a top CIA official.
Another purged U.S. attorney, John McKay, who served from Seattle, had been the target of GOP ire because of the narrow defeat of a GOP candidate in Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial election — a defeat Republicans blamed baselessly on election fraud that they falsely claimed McKay was unwilling to investigate.
Once praised internally within the Justice Department as a “diverse up-and-comer,” New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias made it onto the purge list after he resisted GOP pressure to bring election fraud indictments against certain Democrats before the 2006 election.
While some U.S. attorneys were mystified by the requests for their resignation — the vast majority of the U.S. attorneys had received positive personnel evaluations before their dismissals — they grew more suspicious of the circumstances once they learned that multiple other U.S. attorneys had been told to resign on the same day.
“I thought, ‘Jeez if they’re firing even David Iglesias, and Carol Lam, Paul Charlton in Arizona. Something really nefarious was afoot,’ McKay recalled. “Though we didn’t know what it was.”
Despite their misgivings, McKay and the others at first avoided making a public fuss about their ouster, as they concluded it was within the President’s authority to remove them, even if his reasons for doing so were suspect.
But TPM first became attuned to the potential for scandal when it was announced that Cummins, the Arkansas U.S. attorney, was being replaced with the Rove aide. Weeks later, it became public that Lam, the San Diego U.S. attorney, had also been forced to resign.
“That helped give us a sense that we were really onto something,” Kiel recalled. “Over the weeks, different firings popped up, and Josh [Marshall] was relying on readers reading their local papers because it wasn’t considered a national story yet.”
In January, Kiel published what he described as the site’s first “big break” on the story: the revelation that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) had “slipped” language into the 2006 PATRIOT Act reauthorization empowering the White House to easily replace U.S. attorneys without congressional or judicial approval.
The story caused a blowup, with Specter fuming at a hearing the next month that he does not “slip things” in.
Later on in the hearing, his Democratic counterpart confirmed that she had not been given a heads up about the provision, and Specter himself later conceded that he had been in the dark about the amendment, which had been ushered into the bill by his staff.
It didn’t take long, after the initial stories about the pattern of dismissals were published, for Congress to start its own investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ involvement in the purge. As part of that investigation, the Justice Department turned over reams of documents, often released in batches thousands of pages long at a time.
The result was a novelty for 2007-era journalism: TPM embedded the documents online, allowing readers to help peruse them and find nuggets of information about the White House’s political involvement in the terminations.
“Once things started coming out in Congress, we played a role of narrating and making sense of it in a way that TPM often does,” Kiel recounted. “We became a clearinghouse for the stuff.”
Charlton — the Arizona U.S. attorney who was dismissed amid his probe of then Rep. Renzi — recalled the visceral experience of those documents, including internal emails between White House officials discussing how they were trying to get the DOJ to spin the Renzi investigation in the press.
“Afterwards, to read about these communications it felt like we had been betrayed in some way,” Charlton said. “There was disloyalty there to what we’re supposed to do, which is to pursue corruption regardless of political affiliation.”
For McKay, it was the February 2007 testimony of Paul McNaulty, Gonzales’ deputy attorney general, that rang alarm bells. McNaulty claimed that six of the seven ousted U.S. attorneys had been dismissed for performance issues — an assertion that McKay and the others knew was false.
“I put my head in my hands and I went, ‘Oh, no, a senior official in the Justice Department is lying,’” McKay, who watched the testimony online from a Seattle coffee shop, told TPM.
As painful as being fired from their dream job was, some of the U.S. attorneys swept up in the purge told TPM recently that the blowback the administration received — both in the press and Congress — showed that the system had worked.
Still not lost on them is that the same forces of political interference and voter fraud alarmism have reared their heads again in the Trump era.
“There is no evidence of systemic voter fraud. So for the Trump administration to try to trot this out, it just told me they were absolutely desperate,” Iglesias told TPM.
Correction: This story mistakenly referred to the purged Seattle U.S. attorney as Thomas McKay. His name is John McKay. TPM regrets the error.