LETTER FROM WASHINGTON    DANA WILKIE
The show goes on

June 4, 2007

Tomorrow, the nation will be treated to yet another installment in the rather fascinating tale that could be titled “How Has Alberto Gonzales Managed to Hang on This Long?”

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hear from a high-ranking Justice Department official about whether politics motivated the abrupt firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, including San Diego's Carol Lam.

After numerous Senate and House hearings into the firings, tomorrow's gathering promises to be predictable political theater. No doubt Democrats again will contend that Attorney General Gonzales' office yanked Lam and others because it preferred prosecutors more in line with the Republican White House's thinking. No doubt they'll again call for Gonzales' resignation. And no doubt Gonzales' office and the White House again will brush aside this clamoring as mere partisan rants – even though some Republicans are calling for Gonzales to leave, too.

THE REAL TESTIMONY

Perhaps just as interesting as what comes out of the Senate committee tomorrow is the 13-page document that Lam recently handed the House Judiciary Committee as it, too, investigates the firings. The document contains Lam's responses to questions from the committee, and it sheds some new light on just how aggressively the Justice Department shoved her out the door.

A few days after learning last December that she was to submit her resignation effective Jan. 31, Lam asked Michael Battle, then the head of the U.S. attorney executive office, for extra time to ensure “an orderly transition – especially regarding pending investigations and several significant cases that were set to begin trial in the next few months,” Lam wrote in her answers.

At the time, Lam was investigating corruption cases stemming from her successful prosecution of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Rancho Santa Fe Republican who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax evasion charges after admitting to taking more than $2.4 million in bribes. Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in federal prison. Besides Lam, four other prosecutors were presiding over corruption investigations when they were dismissed.

About a month passed when Lam got a call from Michael Elston, Gonzales' former chief of staff, telling her that her request for extra time was “not being received positively” and that she “should stop thinking in terms of the cases in the office.”

“He insisted that I had to depart in a matter of weeks, not months, and that these instructions were 'coming from the very highest level of the government,' ” Lam wrote.

AND NO TALKING

To add insult, Battle later accused Lam of prematurely leaking her departure to the press, Lam wrote, then criticized her for speaking with other dismissed U.S. attorneys about their firings.

Lam submitted her resignation Jan. 16, effective Feb. 15.

Her detractors insist Lam's record on firearms and immigration prosecutions led to her ouster. Whatever the reality, Lam's answers to the House panel leave two distinct impressions:

One: The forces pushing for her speedy departure were much higher than Elston or Battle.

Two: When given the opportunity to keep Lam on long enough to ensure a smooth transition in her investigations, these high-ranking officials instead agitated for her speedy departure.

ANY MORE SURPRISES?

The nation already has witnessed plenty of explosive congressional testimony in the U.S. attorneys scandal, including last month's revelation about Gonzales' late-night visit when he was White House counsel to the hospital bed of former Attorney General John Ashcroft to pressure him to approve a controversial wiretapping program.

One wonders if Gonzales already has weathered the most damaging of the revelations about how his office operated. Or if there are more surprises in store with tomorrow's appearance by Bradley J. Schlozman, associate counsel to the director in the executive office for U.S. attorneys.

Schlozman is expected to testify about his involvement in reviving a voting-rights lawsuit that dismissed U.S. Attorney Todd P. Graves of Missouri had disagreed with, and that Democrats viewed as a Republican effort to remove the poor and elderly from voting rolls. Gonzales has said the case had nothing to do with Graves' resignation.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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