Panel wants to interview Buchanan on U.S. attorney firings

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House Judiciary Committee members have asked to interview U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, believing that she may have been consulted about preparing the list of eight federal prosecutors who were fired late last year.

Her name is one of several listed in a letter requesting voluntary interviews with U.S. attorneys -- including two prosecutors who have recently come under fire -- and with officials in the Department of Justice and the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

   

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan
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Read Rep. John Conyers Jr.'s letter, which requests interviews with U.S. Attorney officials.

   

The letter was sent Monday by the Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., to acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling. The committee is investigating the process of the firings, and possible politically motivated prosecutions across the country.

Ms. Buchanan, a strong supporter of the Bush administration who has been appointed to several positions within the Department of Justice during her tenure, became the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania in September 2001.

She served a one-year stint as chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee beginning in April 2003, and was named director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys from June 2004 to June 2005.

Most recently she was named acting director of the Office on Violence Against Women.

According to a Judiciary Committee staffer, Ms. Buchanan may have been consulted about what prosecutors she thought should be fired, and about the preparation of the list of those to be fired.

The idea for the removals was initiated in early 2005. Alberto Gonzales assumed the attorney general's post in February 2005, after the resignation of John Ashcroft.

Ms. Buchanan yesterday referred inquiries to the Justice Department.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman there, said officials are reviewing the committee's request "to determine the appropriate course of action." He was unsure when a decision might be made.

Ms. Buchanan's name came up during a private interview by House and Senate investigators over the weekend with D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff for Mr. Gonzales.

Mr. Sampson told the investigators that Ms. Buchanan was one of the senior Justice Department officials he consulted on which U.S. attorneys should be asked to resign, according to a senior Democratic aide who has seen a transcript of the interview.

According to the Justice Department Web site, the major functions of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys include "evaluating the performance of the Offices of U.S. Attorneys, making appropriate reports and taking corrective action where necessary" and "providing support to Deputy Attorney Generals regarding U.S. attorney appointments."

But former federal prosecutors said that is rarely the role of the executive office.

"EOUSA is an administrative office that is designed to serve as a conduit between main Justice and the field," said former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman. "It doesn't supervise U.S. attorneys, and it would never be their call to remove a U.S. attorney."

But former U.S. Attorney Fred Thieman said, "Since 9/11, my concern is that both entities have drifted toward controlling the work of U.S. attorneys' offices, rather than being a resource for them."

Though Mr. Litman believes that serving in the executive office is largely an administrative role, serving as chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee is "a relatively influential position.

"It shows that the attorney general has confidence in you," he said.

Ms. Buchanan also has earned favor within the administration by following the path of many Bush insiders as a member of the Federalist Society.

That was among the criteria in a set of Justice Department documents, released last week to the Judiciary Committee, listing the qualifications of U.S. attorneys.

The categories include political experience, either local, state or federal; prosecution experience, both state and federal; and membership in the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a group of 35,000, founded by conservative law students.

For Ms. Buchanan, it lists her federal prosecutorial career from 1988 to 2001, and that she is a member of the Federalist Society.

She is one of four U.S. attorneys listed in the letter from Mr. Conyers requesting interviews.

The others include a prosecutor under fire for what appears to be an egregious political prosecution, and one criticized for getting her job through patronage.

Steven Biskupic, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, has been the target of heavy criticism in recent weeks after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of a Wisconsin civil servant on corruption charges.

The court, in an unusual move, ordered the woman released from prison immediately without writing an opinion, saying evidence against her was "beyond thin."

Critics have accused Mr. Biskupic of prosecuting the woman -- who was sentenced just before the November 2006 elections -- in a bid to defeat an incumbent Democratic governor. He has denied it.

The Judiciary panel has also asked to interview Rachel Paulose, U.S. attorney for Minnesota. Formerly an assistant to Mr. Gonzales, she was appointed as the interim U.S. attorney in March 2006, though many questioned her lack of experience. In recent days, four top deputies in her office stepped down in an apparent protest of her leadership.

Ms. Buchanan has steadfastly followed administration priorities by focusing on issues like public corruption.

She has taken some criticism because all of the corruption cases she's prosecuted have been of Democrats.

Charles Fried, a law professor at Harvard, said Ms. Buchanan, like the others, could decline the committee's request for an interview, but he doubts that would happen.

"At this point, every such refusal is just going to get bumped up into another issue," said Mr. Fried, solicitor general during President Reagan's second term.

If any agree to be interviewed, it would be behind closed doors. If necessary, the Judiciary Committee could issue subpoenas.

Mr. Gonzales was to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, but it was postponed because of the Virginia Tech shootings.


Post-Gazette staff writer Jerome L. Sherman and The Associated Press contributed. Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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