U.S. Attorney Resignation Made on Threat of Immediate Firing

When a Justice Department official asked eight U.S. attorneys for their resignations last December, most of them went quietly (initially at least), agreeing to resign on relatively short notice and with no public fuss. But one U.S. attorney, Carol Lam in San Diego, had contentious private exchanges with Department officials about her end date.

An email released to Congress last week shows just how heated those discussions got. When Lam delayed announcing her date of resignation — wanting more time to tend to several high profile cases, the expanded Duke Cunningham investigation among them –, Justice Department officials prepared to have the president fire her immediately.

The email was amongst those (pdf) released by the Justice Department to Congress last week. Writing to William Kelley, an attorney in the White House counsel’s office, Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales’ former chief of staff and the orchestrator of the U.S. attorney firings, wrote:

FYI – our USA in SD is refusing to resign (though we’ve given her until 5pm eastern); recommendation that she be removed immediately should be over to you by the end of the day.

The January 16th email was written just as the U.S. attorney firings controversy was beginning to simmer. On January 12th, The San Diego Union-Tribune first reported Lam’s firing. The next day, the paper quoted the head of the San Diego FBI office as saying “I guarantee politics is involved” in Lam’s firing. And on January 16th, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made her way to the Senate floor to announce her concern and suspicion about the U.S. attorney firings (which had just become public).

If Lam had not announced her resignation that day, apparently, the Justice Department would have moved to have her fired — something that can only occur by presidential order. Lam, however, gave in and announced on January 16th that she would be stepping down February 15th.

The announcement followed a number of apparently acrimonious discussions Lam had with Michael Elston, the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general. As Lam detailed in written testimony to Congress, Elston had warned Lam since early January that her requests for more time based on “case-related considerations” was “‘not being received positively'” at the Department. He told Lam to “stop thinking in terms of the cases in the office,” that she had to depart in “a matter of weeks, not months,” and that “these instructions were ‘coming from the very highest levels of the government.'”

The email released last week shows just how close the “highest levels of the government” came to firing Lam when she insisted on an “orderly transition” (her words) for pending investigations.

It’s clear that the Justice Department was in a hurry to have Lam and the other fired U.S. attorneys step down. What’s not clear is why.In Sampson’s plan for the firings, sent out by email on December 4th to Justice Department and White House officials, he said that U.S. attorneys’ pleas for more time were to firmly rebuffed. The prosecutors were to resign by January 31st. Granting extensions, he wrote, would “hinder the process of getting a new U.S. Attorney in place and giving that person the opportunity to serve for a full two years.”

But it’s far from clear that such a delay would have affected the replacement process at all. In testimony before the Senate in March, Sampson said that no replacements had been identified for the U.S. attorneys when they were fired in December. And even at this late date, the president has still not nominated a replacement for Lam — Lam’s Executive Assistant United States Attorney Karen Hewitt has been serving as an interim since February 16th.

So why the hurry in getting Lam out of the office? The Justice Department still hasn’t provided a convincing explanation.

What’s clear is that Lam was in something of a hurry during her busy, final days on the job, securing two historic indictments of the former Executive Director of the CIA Dusty Foggo and defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who’s alleged to have bribed both Cunningham and Foggo, and obtaining a guilty plea for the internal financier Thomas Kontogiannis, who admitted to channeling corrupt payments to Cunningham in order to meet public figures like President Bush and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.