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U.S. attorney Buchanan's role in firings questioned

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan might have played a role in determining which of her colleagues got the ax, and the House Judiciary Committee wants her to provide details of what she knew and when she knew it.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told Senate investigators that he consulted with Buchanan about which U.S. attorneys should be asked to step down, according to a Senate Judiciary Committee aide who read a transcript of Sunday's interview to The Associated Press.

"The chairman and the committee believe she was consulted on which U.S. attorneys would be fired," said a House Judiciary Committee spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified, citing committee policy.

Seven U.S. attorneys were asked to resign in December. An eighth, H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas, was relieved in June, though he stayed in office until December.

Democrats are holding hearings on the firings to find out why the Bush administration dismissed eight of the nation's 93 federal prosecutors. Democrats question whether the administration singled out some to be fired in an effort to interfere with corruption cases in ways that might help Republicans.

Buchanan, a Republican, declined to comment Tuesday.

She became U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in September 2001 and quickly established herself as a favorite within the Justice Department. She served one year as director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, chaired former Attorney General John Ashcroft's Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys and was on an advisory committee to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Buchanan serves as acting director of the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women.

A Justice Department official said Sampson consulted Buchanan while she was director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, which provides administrative support for U.S. attorneys offices across the country. Buchanan held that job from June 2004 to June 2005. During that time, a Justice Department chart rating U.S. attorneys was sent to the White House.

Working for Buchanan at that time was Monica Goodling. The former counsel to Gonzales and liaison to the White House has refused to cooperate with congressional investigators about her role in orchestrating the firings.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., sent a letter Monday to Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Richard A. Hertling requesting interviews with Buchanan and seven other Justice Department officials. The interviews are voluntary.

Conyers stated in his letter that the initial round of interviews and documents provided by the Justice Department led to the list of additional people to interview.

"In our continuing effort to determine the truth behind these firings, we believe that these future interviews will also provide information which we may not already have but that is critical to our investigation nonetheless," he wrote.

Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the ranking minority committee member, said the committee has met three times and reviewed thousands of documents, which he said demonstrate that the Bush administration acted within its legal rights in replacing the top federal prosecutors in eight districts.

"U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president," Smith responded in a written statement. "Every president has the right to be served by people who support their policies."

The debate over the firings has eclipsed that rhetoric, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. Now at issue is whether the firings were politically motivated, he said.

Tobias said the people included in the letter could be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, if necessary; but he thinks they'll voluntarily testify in the closed-door sessions.

Cummins, one of the fired prosecutors, urged Buchanan and the others to cooperate. He said he does not know what any of them knew, or whether they participated in the process that led to the dismissals. Cummins believes he was wrongly ousted and said he would be disappointed in Buchanan or any other former colleague if they were part of the decision-making process.

"At some point, telling the truth has to become an option," Cummins said. "If it was random, say it was random. If it was political, say it was political. But don't just slander a person's reputation."

Daniel Bogden lost his position as U.S. attorney in Nevada. He hopes Buchanan and the others testify. Like Cummins, however, he said he has no direct information that any of them were involved.

"I would like to find some answers," Bogden said. "It certainly had nothing to do with my job performance or that of the office. ... The whole thing was absurd."

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