Democratic lawmakers question autonomy of federal prosecutor
Fear interference from Justice Dept. in probe of firings
WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers yesterday questioned the independence of a veteran federal prosecutor named to investigate whether laws were broken in the partisan political firings of US attorneys.
Representative Linda Sanchez, Democrat of California, who has led the House Judiciary Committee's investigation into the firing of nine prosecutors nearly two years ago, said the Justice Department might interfere with the career prosecutor who will conduct the probe.
Nora Dannehy, the acting US attorney in Connecticut and white-collar crime specialist, was named early this week by Attorney General Michael Mukasey to continue an inquiry that so far has found incompetent, unethical and possibly criminal conduct surrounding the firings.
Mukasey assigned Dannehy to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, his former top aides or White House officials who might have played a role in the dismissals but refused to cooperate in an internal investigation of the scandal.
Meanwhile, Gonzales's lawyer, George Terwilliger, sent a letter to the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility, critical of their report on Gonzales and the firing of the prosecutors.
The report contains nothing "upon which to conclude that a further investigation of Judge Gonzales is appropriate," Terwilliger wrote.
"Making a public recommendation and public statements to the contrary tramples the most basic safeguards . . . to protect the rights and interests of persons whose conduct may be subject to investigation," he said. "It is truly (s)entence first, trial later.' "
Sanchez raised her concerns as Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, was preparing to review the 358-page report documenting the politically inspired firings of at least four of the nine prosecutors.
Despite Sanchez's concerns, Fine told the committee he expects Dannehy "to move aggressively and expeditiously to obtain additional evidence and to make a determination as to whether any criminal offense was committed with regard to the removals or their aftermath."
When several Democrats continued to hammer him on the prosecutor's independence, Fine said Dannehy will have "full authority to take this where she thinks is appropriate."
Asked by Representative Bobby Scott, Democrat of Virginia, whether the attorney general could overrule the prosecutor, Fine said, "I will have to leave that for another day."
Sanchez said grand jury secrecy and the absence of a requirement for Dannehy to issue a public report could keep her findings hidden. The lawmaker added that Dannehy was not named under Justice Department regulations that would have granted her more independence.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement, "Ms. Dannehy has the authority to conduct this investigation however she sees fit, including the independence and ability to seek documents, information and testimony as she believes is necessary."
Representative Chris Cannon, Republican of Utah, said there was "no evidence to support claims of a grand conspiracy" and "no evidence of a politically motivated plot at the White House."
He defended White House officials, saying they were misled by Gonzales aides.