Two weeks after then-U.S.
Attorney Carol Lam ordered a raid on the home and offices
of a former CIA official last year – a search prompted by
her investigation of now-imprisoned former Rep. Randy
“Duke” Cunningham – higher-ups at the Justice Department
privately questioned whether they should give her more
money and manpower.
“There are good reasons not to provide extensive
resources to (Lam),” Bill Mercer, acting associate
attorney general, wrote to Kyle Sampson, who was chief of
staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales until he
resigned a couple of weeks ago.
E-mails released last week by the Justice Department
shed light on an interesting series of events that led to
the firings of Lam and seven other U.S. attorneys.
First came the May 11, 2006, exchange between Justice
Department officials suggesting Lam's removal, the day
after she notified them she would serve search warrants on
former CIA Executive Director Kyle “Dusty” Foggo.
It was a week later that Mercer revealed in an e-mail
that Lam's situation “now has Frist's attention” –
referring to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a
Republican struggling to ensure his party retained control
of the Senate in the upcoming November elections.
HEART OF THE MATTER
Two weeks after that, Mercer questioned the wisdom of
giving Lam more resources.
The day after this Mercer missive, Sampson directed
Mercer in an e-mail to have a “heart-to-heart” with Lam
about “the urgent need to improve immigration enforcement
in San Diego.”
“Put her on a very short leash,” Sampson wrote. “If she
balks – or otherwise does not perform in a measurable way
by July 15, remove her.”
A month later, Justice Department higher-ups were
referring to Lam derisively, saying she “can't meet a
deadline” that her production was “hideous” and that she
Five months later, Lam was told she was being fired.
One could read a lot into these missives, and plenty of
people already have. Democrats suggest the GOP
administration of President Bush was troubled by Lam's and
others' aggressive investigations of corruption involving
And one has to ask: Why would Frist, from a non-border
state such as Tennessee, be intensely interested in a San
Diego U.S. attorney's performance? Could it be that he was
alerted that continuing investigations into GOP lawmakers
could jeopardize Republican control of Congress?
And what were Mercer's “good reasons” for withholding
resources from Lam? Could it be the administration feared
she might use the extra money and manpower to broaden her
corruption investigations of Republicans?
Then there is the perspective offered by Republicans
such as Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, who three years ago
began questioning Lam's record on prosecuting illegal
immigration cases – long before the news of Cunningham's
misdeeds first became public.
Issa first notified Lam in a February 2004 letter of
his concern that her office had released Antonio Amparo-Lopez
after U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested him on suspicion
of alien smuggling.
The Mercer e-mails “may show that the (Justice
Department) was reluctant to provide her with those
resources” if she wasn't pursuing the administration's
priorities on illegal immigration prosecutions, said Issa
spokesman Frederick Hill. “Perhaps Lam's record hampered
her ability to secure the resources she felt she needed.”
The e-mails indicate Justice Department officials began
taking Issa's complaints to heart in 2006. In a July 18,
2006, e-mail, Justice analyst Albert Steiglitz wrote that
he was “skeptical” of Lam's claim that her focus on the
“quality, not quantity” of prosecutions matched the
“I'm not certain that this directive is part” of the
Bush administration strategy, Steiglitz wrote.
No objective person sitting outside the Justice
Department can know one's motivations for writing what one
does in an e-mail. So perhaps House and Senate judiciary
committee lawmakers are correct when they insist the
motivations for the firings of the U.S. attorneys may not
come to light until officials such as presidential adviser
Karl Rove agree to testify under oath before the American
Dana Wilkie is a
Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and
a longtime observer of California politics and social