WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's former No. 2 official testified yesterday that he had been unaware of plans to fire underperforming U.S. attorneys, and praised all but one of the eight whose dismissals are being investigated by Congress.
James Comey, a Republican appointee who was 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 later fired - Kevin Ryan, who was U.S. attorney in San Francisco - fit that description, Comey said.
The others were doing their jobs well, Comey told a House Judiciary subcommittee.
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 administration's priority crime-fighting areas.
David Iglesias of New Mexico 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."
John McKay, former prosecutor in Seattle, was "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, 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 Lockheed Martin Corp., said he did not know that his Feb. 28, 2005, talk with D. Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales' chief of staff at the time, was part of a larger process to weed out underperformers. The discussion occurred less than a month after Gonzales, formerly President Bush's White House counsel, had been confirmed.
"I was not aware there was any sort of process going on," Comey said.
He also said he had been unaware of any discussions about dismissing prosecutors for political reasons, as Democrats believe happened. He said that he never spoke with Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, and that his discussions with Harriet Miers, Gonzales' successor as White House counsel, were limited to topics such as presidential pardons.
Justice documents show that both Rove and Miers floated the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after the 2004 elections. Comey told lawmakers that proposal "would be very disruptive" had it been carried out.
Comey said he was aware of internal discussions at Justice over whether Monica Goodling, then 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."
Lawyers for Goodling yesterday protested Justice's disclosure of its investigation.
The lawyers, John Dowd and Jeffrey King, said in a letter to Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, and H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel for the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, that they were disturbed that the department revealed the inquiry eight days after a House committee voted to compel Goodling's testimony by authorizing a grant of limited immunity.
They said she would assert her Fifth Amendment privilege to refuse to answer the department's questions because of the "close interrelationship" of its inquiry with the congressional investigation.