Politics played major role in attorney firings

Alberto Gonzales (AP)
Alberto Gonzales (AP)

Politics played a major role in the firings of at least half of the U.S. attorneys targeted for removal by the Bush Administration last year.

Despite claims by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the White House that the lawyers were removed "for cause," newly-discovered documents show complaints by Republican lawmakers resulted in removal of at least six of the attorneys and possibly more.

As Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein report in The Washington Post:

Nearly half the U.S. attorneys slated for removal by the administration last year were targets of Republican complaints that they were lax on voter fraud, including efforts by presidential adviser Karl Rove to encourage more prosecutions of election- law violations, according to new documents and interviews.

Of the 12 U.S. attorneys known to have been dismissed or considered for removal last year, five were identified by Rove or other administration officials as working in districts that were trouble spots for voter fraud — Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee; New Mexico; Nevada; and Washington state. Four of the five prosecutors in those districts were dismissed.

It has been clear for months that the administration's eagerness to launch voter-fraud prosecutions played a role in some of the firings, but recent testimony, documents and interviews show the issue was more central than previously known. The new details include the names of additional prosecutors who were targeted and other districts that were of concern, as well as previously unknown information about the White House's role.

The Justice Department demanded that one U.S. attorney, Todd P. Graves of Kansas City, resign in January 2006, several months after he refused to sign off on a Justice lawsuit involving the state's voter rolls, Graves said last week. U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic of Milwaukee also was targeted last fall after complaints from Rove that he was not doing enough about voter fraud. But he was spared because Justice officials feared that removing him might cause political problems on Capitol Hill, according to interviews of Justice aides conducted by congressional staff members.

"There is reason for worry and suspicion at this point as to whether voting fraud played an inappropriate role in personnel decisions by the department," said Daniel P. Tokaji, an election law specialist at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering to replace U.S. attorneys viewed as weak on voter fraud, from state Republican parties to the White House, is one element of a nationwide partisan brawl over voting rights in recent years. Ever since the contested 2000 presidential election, which ended in a Florida recount and intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, both political parties have attempted to use election law to tip close contests to their advantage.

Through legislation and litigation, Republicans have pressed for voter-identification requirements and other rules to clamp down on what they assert is widespread fraud by ineligible voters. Starting early in the Bush administration, the Justice Department has emphasized increasing prosecutions of fraudulent voting.

Democrats counter that such fraud is rare and that GOP efforts are designed to suppress legitimate votes by minorities, the elderly and recent immigrants, who are likely to support Democratic candidates. A draft report last year by the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan government panel that conducts election research, said that "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud."