San Diego Union Tribune

March 21, 2007

Memos on Lam show conflicting views


bullet Two views of then-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam's record

WASHINGTON – At the same time Justice Department officials were crafting letters assuring lawmakers that then-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego was “vigorously” enforcing immigration laws, they privately questioned her prosecution philosophy, remarked that she “can't meet a deadline” and suggested she be put “on a very short leash” or be fired.

San Diego Symphony

Internal memos demonstrate conflicting views within the Justice Department over Lam and seven other U.S. attorneys whose abrupt firings have ignited controversy over whether they were dismissed for performance reasons, as the Justice Department says, or for political reasons, as some Democrats say.

In a letter to one congressman, a top Justice official said Lam was correct in seeking to prosecute immigration violators who “present the greatest threat to the community” instead of racking up a large number of convictions. Yet an e-mail between Justice officials discusses the “urgent need to improve immigration enforcement” in San Diego.

“This incident has shown a bright light into the inner workings of the Bush administration,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said yesterday, after the Senate overwhelmingly approved her bill revoking the attorney general's power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. “We've seen mismanagement and abdication of responsibility by the senior leadership of the Department of Justice. And we've seen a chilling message sent to the 85 remaining U.S. attorneys.”

The Justice Department on Monday released to Congress 3,000 pages of documents that revealed how Bush administration officials privately felt about Lam and seven other U.S. attorneys dismissed in recent months.

Rep. Darrell Issa, who said he began questioning Lam's record on immigration-related prosecutions three years ago, noted that the e-mails demonstrate internal dissatisfaction with Lam's record – even as Justice Department officials drafted rosy letters about Lam to him and Feinstein.

“It does appear they were supporting their own while figuring out how to discipline or change (Lam's) behavior,” said Issa, R-Vista. “That's been a pattern of this administration – which has not had a great record of being forthcoming with Congress.”

A June 1, 2006, memo from Kyle Sampson, then chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, directs acting Associate Attorney General Bill Mercer to have a “heart-to-heart” with Lam about bolstering immigration enforcement.

“Put her on a very short leash,” Sampson wrote. “If she balks on any of the foregoing or otherwise does not perform in a measurable way by July 15, remove her.”

In testimony this month before the House and Senate judiciary committees, Lam said that message was never conveyed to her.

“There had been no conversation or ultimatum,” Lam said.

In a series of July 8, 2006, e-mails, Mike Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, wrote that he was “sad” about a new post that Mercer was taking.

But Mercer jokingly suggested some other reasons why Elston might be sad:

“That Carol Lam can't meet a deadline,” wrote Mercer, who six weeks earlier participated in an analysis saying Lam “should place a greater emphasis on pursuing illegal re-entry and alien smuggling cases.”

“Or that you'll need to interact with her in the coming weeks, or that she won't just say, 'O.K. You got me. You're right, I've ignored national priorities and obvious local needs. Shoot, my production is more hideous than I realized.' ” Replied Elston: “Carol Lam is sad, too.”

Five days later, a Justice Department official sent Elston a draft of two letters addressing inquiries from Issa and Feinstein about complaints from Border Patrol agents that Lam's prosecution of immigration violations was low.

The drafts tell the lawmakers to “rest assured that the immigration laws in the Southern District of California are being vigorously enforced,” and they explain that Lam devoted “substantial available resources” to prosecuting cases involving immigration violations, alien smuggling and border corruption.

The letter said immigration prosecutions overall were “rising dramatically” in 2006. It noted felony prosecutions dropped the previous year because of “a conscious decision to focus resources on seeking higher sentences for more serious offenders.”

Some statistics included in the letter: Defendants who received prison sentences between one and 12 months dropped by more than half to 338 in 2005. But the number of defendants who received sentences between 37 and 60 months more than doubled to 246, and the number who received sentences longer than 60 months more than tripled to 77.

The letter was signed by Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella, who testified before Congress months later that Lam's gun prosecution numbers were “at the bottom of the list” and her immigration prosecutions “just didn't stack up.”

Reflecting on the e-mails, Issa said yesterday that it appeared even Lam was in the dark about how Justice Department higher-ups felt about her work.

“This was not handled well,” Issa said. “As much as (U.S. attorneys) serve at the pleasure of the president, they also need input from the administration on the direction they're going.”

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the critical e-mails were referring to Lam's record on immigration some time ago. He would not comment on the apparent contradiction between the e-mails and the letter to Issa.

In an Aug. 2, 2006, e-mail to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Seidel, Lam described a meeting she had to discuss her performance with Issa and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., also a hard-liner on immigration. She said the tone of the meeting was civil and that the congressmen “seemed to grasp” her explanation about her prosecution strategy.

“Essentially, I must make a choice: prosecute the 'coyotes' who are smuggling but not endangering anyone, or the rapists and murderers who are coming back to rape and murder again,” she wrote. “We left on very cordial terms without any request for follow-up information.”

Seidel forwarded Lam's memo to at least seven officials, including Elston, indicating that it “sounds like (Lam) handled well and it was actually constructive.”

Democrats say the dismissals might have been retribution for the attorneys' prosecuting Republicans or declining to prosecute Democrats.

Feinstein revealed Sunday that a Justice Department e-mail suggesting Lam should be fired came the day after Lam told the department she was executing search warrants that showed she was expanding her investigation that put former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham in federal prison. The Rancho Santa Fe Republican pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and tax evasion after admitting taking more than $2.4 million in bribes.

 »Next Story»