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New attorney general has rebuilding ahead

  Law Center  -   POSTED: 2007/09/04 16:20

Whoever replaces Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will face a daunting challenge. Charges of cronyism and partisan politicking have sunk the Justice Department's reputation to levels not seen since Watergate and damaged the Bush administration's ability to fight crime, pursue the war on terrorism and achieve its other goals, current and former department officials said. President Bush has downplayed the criticism of Gonzales as political mudslinging, but if he selects a new attorney general who seeks to restore the department's independence and professionalism, he could repair the damage before the end of his administration, said officials who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Restoring the department's reputation also could give the administration more elbowroom to pursue its own agenda.

"The Justice Department needs to be depoliticized," said Guy Lewis, who oversaw the U.S. attorneys' offices under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. "Loyalty to the president is a wonderful thing, but it can't be the be-all and end-all."

For the most part, Justice Department lawyers said, the scandal did little to disrupt the day-to-day prosecution of cases. But Gonzales' handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and his subsequent shifting testimony damaged morale and the public's perception of a politically impartial Justice Department.

The department's standing was especially hurt by revelations that Gonzales' aides had screened job applicants based on their political credentials and by allegations that they had pressured Justice Department lawyers who were overseeing politically sensitive cases, current and former officials said.

Adding to the concern about the department's ability to remain impartial, Gonzales changed policy in a way that allows White House officials unprecedented access to information about pending criminal and civil cases. When Congress confronted him about the change, he testified that he, too, was concerned when he realized the possible effect.

Gonzales appears to have had little sense of the inner workings of his own department, some lawyers said.

When he was told that budget cuts meant that U.S. attorneys would be filing fewer cases, Gonzales turned to aides and asked, "When were you going to tell me this?" people familiar with the meeting said.

Paul Charlton, one of the Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys whom Gonzales fired, recalled that the attorney general raised eyebrows when he spoke at an annual meeting with U.S. attorneys about what he saw as the department's mission.

"He told us to remember that we work for the president," Charlton said. "Many of us, particularly the career people, were taken aback by that. Yes, we serve at the pleasure of the president. But we work for the people, not just the president."

Gonzales attempted to exert tight control over the U.S. attorneys' offices, unlike prior Republican administrations, which had worked to ensure that their top prosecutors had greater independence.

The attorney general and his aides pushed department lawyers in the field to carry out the president's priorities, sometimes to the detriment of local needs.

"It's OK to tell a U.S. attorney that they're not cutting the mustard because they're not prosecuting immigration cases," said Bill Mateja, a former federal prosecutor in Texas and a former senior counsel under Ashcroft. "But it's not OK to bring politics to bear, and in some cases it appears there was more of a focus on the politics and less of a focus on actually fulfilling the president's initiatives."


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