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U.S. Attorneys’ Firings Create Chill in Justice Department

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This week the House and Senate Judiciary Committees called former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam and five other fired prosecutors to testify about why and how they were fired. One prosecutor said he and his colleagues were threatened by the Justice Department if they spoke of the firings. Another said he felt leaned on by Republican lawmakers anxious to see Democrats indicted.  Full Focus reporter Amita Sharma has the story.

It's been two nearly two months since Carol Lam was fired as San Diego's U.S. attorney. Since then, politicians, local lawyers, pundits and reporters have speculated about why she was let go. This week we heard form Lam herself. And as it turns out, she still doesn't know the answer.

San Diego's U.S. attorney in 1989, says Lam was owed an explanation.

William Braniff: Certainly, certainly. This is not a minor job. It's a very significant job. She's done it well. And the idea that some lightning bolt would come out of nowhere and end your position, logical [to ask] why. The explanations that have been forthcoming have not been plausible.

Lam said she and her former colleagues had received good performance reviews. But Justice Department officials testified that Lam didn't aggressively pursue immigrant smuggling and illegal gun cases. And a Justice Department letter only four months before her ouster states that alien smuggling cases under Lam "are rising sharply" and backs her approach to immigration prosecutions.

Braniff: If there's a problem with the numbers, call her up on the phone and say Carol we want to get those numbers up for x, y and z reasons. She would have done it. She's loyal. She can bring that into effect.

But Lam says no one from the Justice Department ever did that. She said she was concerned that other federal prosecutors might glean from her firing that they should play it safe and not displease anyone. Braniff agrees.

Braniff: There's a chilling effect on other U.S. attorneys. Other U.S. attorneys who also don't know why, but they know that Carol Lam is very well known for bringing high-profile prosecutions against a very noted Republican and the lightning strikes her so what inference should they draw?

Braniff says Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez's decision yesterday not to oppose legislation curtailing his power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys prevents the White House and the Justice Department from overreaching when it comes to putting in temporary federal prosecutors they believe will do their political bidding.

Braniff: That shift has been interrupted. Also, I think the lessons learned, if any lessons are learned by the Department of Justice, is you have to be careful with institutions. You just can't try to change them for your own purposes.

Meanwhile, observers say damage to the process has already been done. They point to other testimony this week by fired prosecutors. Former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias says he felt sick after he got calls from Senator Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson inquiring about whether he could get indictments against Democrats under investigation before the November election. And former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Arkansas says he was warned by Justice Department officials that they would 34e "take the gloves off" if ousted federal prosecutors talked about their firings.

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