Job performance said to be behind White House firingUNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS
January 12, 2007
The Bush administration has quietly asked San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, best known for her high-profile prosecutions of politicians and corporate executives, to resign her post, a law enforcement official said.
Lam has had high-profile successes during her tenure, such as the Randy “Duke” Cunningham bribery case – but she alienated herself from bosses at the Justice Department because she is outspoken and independent, said local lawyers familiar with her policies.
When she took over, Lam made it clear that she planned to focus less on low-level smuggling cases in favor of public corruption and white collar crime, which would mean fewer but more significant prosecutions.
Lam declined to comment yesterday.
Several prosecutors in Lam's office and many defense lawyers said yesterday that they were unaware of her impending dismissal, and were universally shocked by it.
“This office has clearly made a priority of investigating and prosecuting white collar offenses and has had occasional success doing so,” he said. “One would think that would be valued by any administration, even if it meant fewer resources were devoted to routine and repetitive border crimes.”
Lam, 47, has been criticized by members of the Border Patrol agents union and by members of Congress, including Vista Republican Darrell Issa, who accused her office of “an appalling record of refusal to prosecute even the worst criminal alien offenders.”
But even some of Lam's legal opponents said the supposed reasons she is being forced out are perplexing.
“What do they want her to do, lock up Mexico?” said Mario Conte, former chief of Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc. Conte, now a professor at California Western School of Law in downtown San Diego, said every prosecutor walks a tightrope.
“I'm sure that Carol, in her role, is simply not able to accommodate everybody's desires of what they think the U.S. Attorney should be doing in this district.”
Her most prominent case involved Cunningham. The former Rancho Santa Fe congressman is in federal prison, and indictments of others connected to the case may be forthcoming. Her office is also prosecuting Francisco Javier Arellano-Félix, a suspected Mexican drug kingpin, who is in federal custody in San Diego facing charges that could lead to the death penalty. Two San Diego city councilmen were convicted of corruption charges by Lam's office, but a judge reversed the jury's verdict for one of the men.
Lam spent almost a year personally prosecuting a national hospital chain that she said used complex agreements to pay off local doctors in return for referrals. That case ended in a mistrial.
But under Lam, the overall number of prosecutions has plummeted.
In 2001, the year before she took over, federal prosecutors in San Diego and Imperial counties filed 5,266 cases, while in 2005, the office prosecuted 3,261 cases, according to statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University from federal reports.
Of the 2001 cases, 2,419 were related to immigration, while that number stood at 1,641 in 2005. Although the number of cases dropped significantly in 2005, a higher percentage were immigration-related – 50 percent in 2005 compared with 46 percent in 2001.
Most of the other prosecutions were drug cases, with 2,294 filed in 2001 and 1,290 in 2005. There were 14 weapons cases in 2001, and eight in 2005.
Some in the defense community were glad to hear there may be change at the U.S. Attorney's Office.
“She has shown a certain tunnel vision in her prosecutions and has exercised an appalling lack of discretion in terms of the individuals she has targeted for prosecution and the classes of crimes that she has chosen to direct her resources at,” said criminal defense attorney Geoffrey C. Morrison, who represented a defendant in the City Hall corruption case prosecuted by Lam's office.
“Having somebody with a more broad-minded approach and a greater sense of fairness and justice will do the legal community a tremendous justice,” he said.
Lam, a career prosecutor, former Superior Court judge and political in dependent, sent an e-mail to her staff late in the afternoon in which she neither confirmed nor denied that she was asked to step down. She told attorneys not to let speculation interfere with their work.
She also told them not to speak to reporters about the subject, but to refer calls to her spokeswoman, according to a recipient of the e-mail who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.
U.S. attorneys are usually appointed by the president and require Senate approval. They typically serve the same term as the president that appointed them, and are replaced when a new president is elected.
However, a provision in the Patriot Act that was revised last year allows the Attorney General to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys for indefinite terms when vacancies arise, without Senate confirmation. Filling interim vacancies had been the responsibility of the district court.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., criticized the Bush administration yesterday for “pushing out U.S. Attorneys from across the country under the cloak of secrecy.”
“We don't know how many U.S. Attorneys have been asked to resign – it could be two, it could be ten, it could be more. No one knows,” she said in a statement.
Feinstein said the administration was abusing its executive power by trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. She and two colleagues proposed legislation yesterday to restore appointment authority to the district court when a vacancy occurs and an interim leader is needed.
Lam is one of several prosecutors who have either resigned under pressure or been told to leave in recent months.
New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias is among those who have announced they are stepping down.
“I was asked to resign,” he said. “I asked (why) and wasn't given any answers. I ultimately am OK with that. We all take these jobs knowing we serve at the pleasure of the president.”
H.E. “Bud” Cummins, who left the post of U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, Ark., wouldn't say whether he was asked. His replacement, J. Timothy Griffin, was an Army prosecutor who worked in the White House and for the Republican National Committee. Arkansas' senators, both Democrats, have criticized the way in which he was selected because it did not require Senate approval.
It's not the intent of the Justice Department to avoid the confirmation process, and the department is committed to working with senators when making a nomination, a department spokesman said.
Of 11 U.S. Attorney vacancies since the Attorney General gained the authority to make the appointments in March 2006, the Bush administration has nominated four people and interviewed seven others, all of whom are expected to complete the confirmation process, said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
“In every case, it is a goal of this administration to have a U.S. Attorney that is confirmed by the Senate,” Roehrkasse said. “It is wrong for a member of Congress to believe that this is in any way an attempt to circumvent the confirmation process.”
Kelly Thornton: (619) 542-4571; firstname.lastname@example.org