WASHINGTON – Sen.
Dianne Feinstein and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
clashed yesterday over the pending departure of San Diego
U.S. Attorney Carol Lam and several other federal
prosecutors across the nation.
Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was “very concerned” that
the Bush administration is forcing out good prosecutors
and circumventing Senate confirmation of their successors
because of provisions in the Patriot Act, a sweeping law
passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Gonzales, who testified before the Senate Judiciary
Committee, conceded that some prosecutors are being
ousted. He declined to provide details and insisted that
his office is not acting for political reasons or
Lam, 47, a former Superior Court judge, was among at
least seven U.S. attorneys nationwide who said they were
leaving their posts. She said she would resign Feb. 15.
Since word of Lam's departure surfaced, speculation has
swirled that she was being forced out because of her
aggressive investigation of former Rep. Randy “Duke”
Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe. Cunningham is in prison
after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion
In a flurry of exchanges, Feinstein said she wanted
answers from Gonzales about prosecutors who have been
asked to leave. But the nation's top law enforcement
“How many U.S. attorneys have been asked to resign in
the past year?” Feinstein asked.
When Gonzales hedged, she said, “Give me a number,
that's all. Just give me a number.”
Gonzales declined to say how many prosecutors have been
asked to resign or to identify them. “I'm not going into a
public discussion on a personnel decision,” he said.
Later, Gonzales said he would provide the committee
with the number of U.S. attorneys who have been asked to
Feinstein noted that Lam and Kevin Ryan, the U.S.
attorney in San Francisco, have been among the prosecutors
whose resignations were sought by the administration. Both
“have major jurisdictions and major cases and
substantially good records,” she said.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Jan. 12
that Lam was asked to resign because of decreasing
prosecutions in gun and immigration matters. Lam has not
given an interview since the news surfaced.
Besides the U.S. attorneys in California, Feinstein has
said that prosecutors from New Mexico, Nevada, Arkansas,
Texas, Washington and Arizona have been asked to resign.
She was the only senator on the 18-member committee who
spoke at length about the issue.
Gonzales did not discuss the upcoming vacancies. He
said, however, that his office was seeking “the very best
representation for the Department of Justice.”
“I would never make a change in the U.S. attorney
position that would jeopardize any investigation. I would
just not do that,” Gonzales said.
He called his actions a sign of “good management” and
said he is seeking the “best possible person” for each
Gonzales said he intends to obtain nominations from
President Bush and expects “appropriate Senate
confirmations.” He said the administration wants to fill
any pending vacancies with interim appointments as quickly
“We don't have the luxury of sitting on vacancies,”
Feinstein said she is upset that the administration's
authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys was greatly
expanded under a little-noticed provision in last year's
Patriot Act reauthorization.
“We did not amend (the law) to prevent the confirmation
process from taking place,” Feinstein said, adding that
she was worried that the attorney general would have the
ability to make open-ended appointments.
Last week, Feinstein, along with Sens. Patrick Leahy,
D-Vt., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., introduced the Preserving
United States Attorney Independence Act. She said it would
“prevent further circumvention” of the Senate's
constitutional authority to confirm the federal
Although Gonzales declined to discuss individual
prosecutors, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was critical of
Lam's record on immigration cases.
Lam “had a firm policy of not prosecuting criminal
aliens,” Sessions said. “If someone is not performing, the
attorney general has every right to seek a change.”
Throughout her tenure, Lam said she preferred to focus
the limited resources of the U.S. attorney's office on
significant prosecutions instead of handling hundreds of
routine border cases.
Bush appointed her as the top federal prosecutor for
San Diego and Imperial counties in September 2002. She was
viewed as a compromise candidate when political infighting
knocked out others vying for the $140,000-a-year job.