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Context of 'March 10, 2004: California US Attorney Identified as ‘Underperforming’ in Firearms Prosecutions'

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Michael Battle, the director of the Executive Office for US Attorneys, sends a memo to Kyle Sampson, counsel to Attorney General John Ashcroft, informing him that 16 US Attorneys’ offices are below standards—“underperforming”—in implementing Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a Justice Department initiative to reduce gun violence and prosecute offenders who use guns in the commission of crimes. One of the US Attorneys cited is Carol Lam of the Southern District of California (see November 8, 2002). The memo notes that Lam’s office returned “only 17 firearms indictments” in 2003, and that her office’s PSN indictments and defendants “per criminal work years for FY 2003 is the lowest in the nation.” Subsequent Justice Department analyses of PSN performance continue to identify Lam’s district as needing improvement in firearms prosecutions. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), Carol C. Lam, D. Kyle Sampson, Michael A. Battle, Project Safe Neighborhoods

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Deputy Attorney General James Comey calls US Attorney Carol Lam over her office’s “underperformance” with regards to firearms prosecutions under the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) initiative (see March 10, 2004). Comey tells Lam that PSN is a high priority for the Justice Department, and “something incredibly important to the attorney general and me, and to the president.” He tells her that he wants her “to really focus on this and make sure you are not missing something.” He acknowledges that different districts handle gun prosecutions differently, depending on the individual state’s gun laws, and notes that he is not calling “just for the sake of getting your [PSN] numbers up.” When asked (see September 29, 2008) if he thought she understood that she needed to get her PSN numbers higher, Comey will say, “I was keen not to convey that directly.” He understands that California has quite restrictive state gun laws, and state prosecutors handle many cases that federal law enforcement officials such as US Attorneys would handle in other states. However, Comey does expect her numbers to increase because he called her about the issue. He does not tell her that a failure to improve her PSN numbers would warrant her termination. Spencer Pryor, a counsel in Comey’s office and a participant in the telephone conversation between Comey and Lam, sends a memo to Kyle Sampson, a lawyer on the staff of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, summarizing the results of the calls to Lam and other “underperforming” US Attorneys. Pryor notes that Lam acknowledged Comey’s concerns, but stated that her office had received no PSN resources. Pryor notes that Lam is incorrect, that she has received another prosecutor for PSN cases. Lam also says during the call that her district’s PSN case screening process is “broken” and a new system would help boost prosecution numbers. Pryor also notes that state prosecutors handle many firearms cases because of California’s strict gun laws. Pryor concludes that Lam needs more resources to adequately prosecute PSN cases. Lam sends an email to her staff detailing the conversation with Comey, tells them that their district ranks 93rd out of 94 US Attorneys in gun prosecutions (only 20 in the previous year), and that she told Comey that while their numbers will increase in the coming months, he should not expect a “meteoric rise.” She cites California’s gun laws and the “immense” caseload of her office as reasons why their numbers are so low. She tells her staff that she knows Comey wants the PSN numbers to rise. She later says she works with local law enforcement agencies to have them refer any firearms cases to her office where the federal sentence would exceed the state sentence by 24 months. Moreover, she will say, in 2005 and 2006 her office will make concerted efforts to prosecute more firearms cases. However, she will say, those measures are “a solution in search of a problem,” and her office will get few referrals. [US House of Representatives, Committee of the Judiciary, 4/13/2007 pdf file; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: D. Kyle Sampson, Carol C. Lam, Spencer Pryor, Alberto R. Gonzales, James B. Comey Jr., US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department official Kyle Sampson (see 2001-2003), now the deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see February 15, 2005) as well as the Special Assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, sends an email to Gonzales’s successor, senior White House counsel Harriet Miers. Sampson is responding to a late February request for recommendations for firing US Attorneys in case the White House decides to ask for resignations from a “subset” of those officials (see February 24, 2005 and After). In the email, Sampson ranks all 93 US Attorneys, using a set of three broad criteria. Strong performers exhibit “loyalty to the president and attorney general” (see January 9, 2005). Poor performers are, he writes, “weak US Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.” A third group is not rated at all. US Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico (see October 18, 2001, 2002 and November 14-18, 2005 ) and Kevin Ryan of the Northern District of California (see August 2, 2002) appear on the list as “recommended retaining.” Gonzales has approved the idea of firing some of the US Attorneys.
Denoted for Firing - US Attorneys listed for possible firing are: David York of the Southern District of Alabama; H.E. “Bud” Cummins of the Eastern District of Arkansas (see January 9, 2002 and April or August 2002); Carol Lam of the Southern District of California (see November 8, 2002); Greg Miller of the Northern District of Florida; David Huber of the Western District of Kentucky; Margaret Chiara of the Western District of Michigan (see November 2, 2001); Jim Greenlee of the Northern District of Mississippi; Dunn O. Lampton of the Southern District of Mississippi; Anna Mills S. Wagoner of the Middle District of North Carolina; John McKay of the Western District of Washington state (see October 24, 2001, Late October 2001 - March 2002, and January 4, 2005); Kasey Warner of the Southern District of West Virginia; and Paula Silsby of Maine. Sampson sends a revised listing later this evening with two more names indicated for possible firing: Thomas B. Heffelfinger of Minnesota and Steven Biskupic of the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Sampson says he based his choices on his own personal judgments formed during his work at the White House and the Justice Department, and on input he received from other Justice Department officials. He will later testify that he cannot recall what any specific official told him about any specific US Attorney. He will call this list a “quick and dirty” compilation and a “preliminary list” that would be subject to “further vetting… down the road” from department leaders. [US Department of Justice, 2005 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 2/15/2005; Washington Post, 3/12/2007; US Department of Justice, 3/13/2007 pdf file; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008; Talking Points Memo, 2011] Days later, a Federalist Society lawyer will email Mary Beth Buchanan, the director of the Executive Office of US Attorneys, with a recommendation for Lam’s replacement (see March 7, 2005).
Later Recollections - In the 2008 investigation of the US Attorney firings by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (see September 29, 2008), Gonzales will tell investigators that he supported the concept of evaluating the US Attorneys’ performance to see “where we could do better.” Gonzales will say that he instructed Sampson to consult with the senior leadership of the Justice Department, obtain a consensus recommendation as to which US Attorneys should be removed, and coordinate with the White House on the process. Gonzales will say that he never discussed with Sampson how to evaluate US Attorneys or what factors to consider when discussing with department leaders which US Attorneys should be removed. Sampson will say that he did not share the list with Gonzales or any other department officials, but will say he believes he briefed Gonzales on it. Gonzales will say he recalls no such briefing, nor does he recall ever seeing the list. Then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and then-Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis will tell OIG investigators about their discussions with Sampson. Comey will recall telling Sampson on February 28, 2005 that he felt Ryan and Lampton belonged in the “weak” category, and will say he may have denoted Heffelfinger and another US Attorney, David O’Meilia, as “weak” performers. Comey will say that he was not aware of Sampson’s work with the White House in compiling a list of US Attorneys to be removed. He will say that he considered his conversation with Sampson “casual” and that Sampson “offhandedly” raised the subject with him. Margolis will recall speaking briefly with Sampson about “weak” performers among the US Attorneys in late 2004 or early 2005, but recall little about the conversation. He will remember that Sampson told him about Miers’s idea of firing all 93 US Attorneys (see November 2004), and agreed with Sampson that such a move would be unwise. Margolis will recall Sampson viewing Miers’s idea as a way to replace some US Attorneys for President Bush’s second term, an idea Margolis will say he endorsed. He was not aware that political considerations may be used to compile a list of potential firings. He will recall looking at a list Sampson had of all 93 Attorneys. He will remember citing Ryan and Lampton as poor performers, as well as Chiara. He will remember saying that eight other US Attorneys might warrant replacement. Sampson will tell OIG investigators that he received no immediate reaction from Miers to the list, and will say he did not remember discussing the basis for his recommendations with her. As for McKay, though Washington state Republicans are sending a steady stream of complaints to the White House concerning McKay’s alleged lack of interest in pursuing voter fraud allegations (see December 2004, Late 2004, Late 2004 or Early 2005, January 4, 2005, and January 4, 2005), Sampson will claim to be unaware of any of them and say he would not have used them as justification to advocate for McKay’s termination. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Carol C. Lam, Kevin Ryan, Anna Mills S. Wagoner, Margaret M. Chiara, Bush administration (43), Paula Silsby, Steven M. Biskupic, Alberto R. Gonzales, US Department of Justice, Thomas B. Heffelfinger, John L. McKay, Jim Greenlee, Mary Beth Buchanan, Harriet E. Miers, James B. Comey Jr., David C. Iglesias, D. Kyle Sampson, David Huber, David Margolis, Kasey Warner, David York, David O’Meilia, Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), Greg Miller, Dunn O. Lampton, H.E. (“Bud”) Cummins III

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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