WASHINGTON – The Justice Department's former No. 2 official testified Thursday he was unaware of plans to fire underperforming U.S. attorneys and praised all but one of the eight who were purged last year.
Jim Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, said he had one 15-minute conversation during his tenure about prosecutors who were considered weak managers. Only one of the eight who were ultimately fired — Kevin Ryan, the former U.S. attorney in San Francisco — fit that description, Comey said.
The others were doing their jobs well, Comey told a House Judiciary subcommittee investigating the firings.
His testimony starkly contrasted with the Justice Department's insistence that the eight were ordered to resign in a midterm purge because they were considered underperformers in some of the Bush administration's priority crime-fighting areas.
David Iglesias of New Mexico, for example, was "a very effective U.S. attorney," Comey said. He called Daniel Bogden of Nevada "as straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy" and Paul Charlton of Arizona "one of the best."
Of John McKay, former prosecutor in Seattle: "One of my favorites," Comey said. Carol Lam of San Diego was "a fine U.S. attorney."
Comey said he did not have much interaction with Bud Cummins of Little Rock, Ark., and neither he nor lawmakers spoke about Margaret Chiara, who was prosecutor in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The former deputy attorney general called Ryan "a fine guy — he just had management problems in that office."
Comey, now counsel at defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., said he did not know his Feb. 28, 2005, brief talk with Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, was part of a larger process to weed out underperformers. The discussion occurred less than a month after Gonzales was confirmed.
"I was not aware there was any sort of process going on ... or my brief conversation with Mr. Sampson was part of a process," Comey said.
Comey also said he was unaware of any discussions about dismissing prosecutors for political reasons, as Democrats believe happened. He said he never spoke with Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, and that his discussions with former White House counsel Harriet Miers were limited to topics like presidential pardons.
Justice Department documents show both Rove and Miers had floated the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after the 2004 elections. Comey told lawmakers that proposal "would be very disruptive" if it had been carried out.
Comey also said he was aware of internal discussions at the Justice Department over whether Monica Goodling, formerly counsel and White House liaison for Gonzales, had illegally considered applicants' political affiliations when hiring career trial prosecutors in some U.S. attorneys' offices. The Justice Department is investigating the allegation.
"If that was going on, that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is," Comey said. "You just cannot do that. It deprives the department of its lifeblood."
Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., said the investigation suggests the Justice Department itself now fears that part of the firing process was illegal. "We have an obligation to get to the bottom of this and to reassure the public that there is no wrongdoing, if in fact that is the case," Watt said. "If it is not the case, it is our responsibility to expose that."
Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, top Republican on the panel, praised Comey's candor but chastised Democrats controlling the hearing of unfairly seeking to link the White House's political operation to the firings. "So far this seems to be a fishing expedition that's come up dry," Cannon said.