San Diego Union Tribune

February 7, 2007

Lawmakers' letters led to Lam's ouster


Several members of Congress sent letters complaining about the job performance of U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who announced her resignation last month. Her final day is Feb. 15, after 4˝ years as the top federal prosecutor in the San Diego district.

A top Justice Department official said yesterday that San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was being targeted for dismissal because of “performance-related” issues after his office received letters from several members of Congress complaining about her handling of immigration enforcement cases.

Questioned by Senate Judiciary Committee members, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty repeatedly declined to spell out what Lam's performance shortcomings were, other than to note the complaints.

“What about Carol Lam? Why was she terminated?” committee member Rep. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., asked McNulty.

“I respectfully decline to go into specific reasons,” McNulty said.

“I think the committee needs to know why she was terminated,” Specter responded.

But all McNulty would say is that “the phone calls made in December were performance-related.” He was referring to calls made to Lam and five other prosecutors demanding their resignations. A seventh U.S. attorney, based in Arkansas, was dismissed earlier last year to make way for a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove, McNulty said.



The forced resignations and secrecy surrounding them have triggered concerns among Democrats that the Bush administration is trying to circumvent the Senate's right to approve or disapprove U.S. attorney appointments.

Democrats, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have objected to a provision slipped into the USA Patriot Act last year allowing U.S. attorney replacements to be appointed and serve indefinitely without Senate approval. Democrats are preparing legislation to overturn the new presidential power.

“I have observed, with increasing alarm, how politicized the Department of Justice has become,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the start of the hearing. “I have watched, with growing worry, as the department has increasingly based hiring on political affiliation.”

McNulty vigorously denied the allegation: “When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart.”

Separately, he added: “The attorney general's appointment authority has not and will not be used to circumvent the confirmation process.”

Schumer noted that Lam “was in the midst of a sweeping public investigation,” referring to the probe of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Rancho Santa Fe, and others. Cunningham is in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges, but investigations are pending for several co-conspirators.

“Was her firing political retaliation? There's no way to know that,” Schumer said. But he said he assumed that “politics is involved. The appearance is plain awful.”

McNulty denied the assertion.

When questioned about the continued Cunningham-related investigations, McNulty said, “We never have and never will seek to remove a United States attorney to interfere with an ongoing investigation or prosecution or in retaliation for a prosecution.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who supports Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' right to remove the prosecutors, referred to a series of critical letters about Lam from members of Congress who questioned her lack of aggressiveness in immigration-related cases.

Lam had been “subject to a number of complaints,” Sessions said.

Last June, Feinstein wrote to Gonzales regarding her concerns about immigration-related prosecutions in Southern California. On July 30, 2004, a group of 14 California representatives wrote to the Attorney General also to express their “concern” about immigration-related cases.

In October 2005, Rep. Darrell Isla, R-Vista, wrote to Lam complaining about “non-prosecution of criminal illegal aliens,” and a year later criticized her office about its failure to carry out immigrant-related smuggling cases.

The Attorney General's office was familiar with all the letters, McNulty said. “We received letters from members of Congress,” McNulty acknowledged. “I don't want to go into the substance of them.

“We take them seriously,” he said. “We give them consideration.”

Lam, 47, who has been the top prosecutor in San Diego for more than four years, announced she is resigning Feb. 15. She has declined to comment on reasons for her resignation, but sources said they were linked to Justice Department officials who were concerned about her handling of immigration-related prosecutions.

Lam's office said she had no comment about yesterday's proceedings.

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