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Democrats complain that 'little known' Patriot Act amendment allows the Bush Administration to 'circumvent' Senate with US Attorney 'swaps'

Brian Beutler
Published: Tuesday January 16, 2007
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A little-known, year-old amendment to the USA Patriot Act is allowing the Bush Administration to replace outgoing U.S. Attorneys with controversial appointments in a process that circumvents the usual approval process in the Senate, and three Democrats are charging that an unknown number of attorneys have been asked to resign "without cause."

Before last year's amendment was added to the Patriot Act, the Attorney General was allowed to appoint interim State Attorneys, but only for a period of 120 days. That right had rested with District Courts until the change was made in 1986.

According to a press release issued by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) which was sent to RAW STORY, "The law was changed so that if a vacancy arises the Attorney General may appoint a replacement for an indefinite period of time thus completely avoiding the Senate confirmation process."

One aide told RAW STORY, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez "can expect to be questioned about this," when he appears on Capitol Hill later this week.

Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal reported that an unusual number of vacancies have occurred in U.S. Attorneys' offices since March 2006.

"The Justice Department counts 11 vacancies since March 2006," Van Perez and Scot J. Paltrow wrote. "The administration has nominated candidates to fill four of those and is interviewing candidates to fill seven others, officials said."

"The departure that started the uproar is that of Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., whose replacement, Timothy Griffin, is a former political official in the Bush White House and the Republican National Committee," the WSJ article continued. "Mr. Cummins, in an interview, said a top Justice official asked for his resignation in June, saying the White House wanted to give another person the opportunity to serve."

Many of those who left, according to the story, sought higher-paying private sector jobs, but according to Senate sources who did not want to be named in this story, the administration may be taking advantage of the Patriot Act amendment to install attorneys "who couldn't pass the confirmation process without this kind of appointment."

The press release adds that, "[the] Department of Justice has asked several U.S. Attorneys from around the country to resign their positions prior to the end of their terms without cause."

U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the administration, but tend to leave either at the end of the president's term, or of their own volition.

Democratic Senators Feinstein, Leahy, and Pryor also announced last week their intent to introduce legislation that will return the interim appointment power to the District Courts. Leahy and Feinstein additionally wrote Attorney General, asking him to table any Justice Department requests asking U.S. Attorneys to step down, and to cease any plans to appoint replacements until the forthcoming bill has had a hearing in the Senate.

The letter, acquired by RAW STORY, appears below.

The Honorable Alberto Gonzales U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Ave, NW Washington, DC 20530

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

Recently, it has come to our attention that the Department of Justice has asked several U.S. Attorneys from around the country to resign their positions by the end of the month, prior to the end of their terms without cause. We also understand the intention is to have your office appoint interim replacements and potentially avoid the Senate confirmation process altogether.

We are very concerned about this allegation, and we believe, if true, such actions would be intemperate and ill-advised. We have asked our staffs to look into changing the law to prevent such actions and are introducing legislation today that will return the law to its previous language providing a district court with the authority to appoint an interim U.S. Attorney for the district in which a vacancy arises. Therefore, we ask that if such requests have been made that you desist from moving forward with these efforts and hold the requests in abeyance.

As you know, U.S. Attorneys around the country serve important functions bringing many of the most important and difficult cases. Our U.S. Attorneys are responsible for taking the lead on public corruption cases and many of the anti-terrorism efforts across the country. U.S. Attorneys also playa vital role in combating traditional crimes like narcotics trafficking, bank robbery, guns, violence, environmental crime, civil rights violations and fraud. U.S. Attorneys are also taking the lead on prosecuting computer hacking, Internet fraud and intellectual property theft; accounting and securities fraud and computer chip theft. Continuity in these positions is of utmost importance, and freedom from any inappropriate influences or the appearance of influence must be avoided at all costs.

Please provide information regarding all instances in which you have exercised the authority to appoint an interim United States Attorney. In addition, please provide us with information on whether any efforts have been made to ask or encourage the former or current U.S. Attorneys to resign their position.

We would appreciate your prompt attention to this matter and written answers prior to your appearance before the Judiciary Committee on January 18, 2007.