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Context of 'May 22, 2008: House Committee Reports Justice Department Investigating Allegations of Politicization'

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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

A federal court of appeals overturns the conviction of former Wisconsin government official Georgia Thompson, who was convicted of two felony counts of manipulating a state bidding process to favor a Wisconsin travel agency whose executives had made campaign donations to Governor Jim Doyle (D-WI—see June 13, 2006). The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacates the conviction and orders Thompson released from jail (see September 22, 2006) immediately. US Attorney Steven Biskupic, who prosecuted Thompson, says he will most likely not appeal the decision. The three-judge panel finds Thompson was wrongfully convicted after oral arguments were presented by both Biskupic’s office and Thompson’s attorney, not waiting for written submissions. Judge Diane T. Wood called the evidence submitted by Biskupic “beyond thin,” telling prosecutors: “I have to say, in comparison to some of the cases this court has seen, that’s a pretty thin set of facts to show some sort of tight political relationship. Am I missing something?” Judge William Bauer wondered why others were not prosecuted, asking why, if prosecutors felt Doyle and others were complicit in the alleged crimes, only Thompson was left to “carr[y] the sack.” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook noted Adelman Travel had the lowest bid and assailed math used to score competing bids. “Because they flunked high school math doesn’t mean a felony was committed,” he said. Doyle, a former state attorney general, says the court did an “extraordinary thing” by entering an order finding Thompson innocent and ordering her immediate release. Decisions like this usually take weeks or months to be rendered. Doyle says Thompson did nothing wrong, calls her “an innocent woman who was used as a political football,” and says she deserves her job back and to be awarded back pay. “She was doing her job, and then she got caught up in all of this,” he says. Doyle defeated gubernatorial challenger Mark Green (R-WI) in the November 2006 elections; Green attempted to make the Thompson “Travelgate” affair a centerpiece of his campaign, and repeatedly accused Doyle and his administration of corruption. Thompson’s attorney, Stephen Hurley, argued in oral presentations that Thompson did not personally profit from the contract going to Adelman Travel, contending that her actions did not constitute “dishonest gain,” a criteria many courts have applied to corruption cases. Hurley says that as a result of her conviction, she lost “her job, her life savings, her home, and her liberty; and it cost Georgia her good name.… At sentencing, the government urged a longer period of incarceration because Georgia did not accept responsibility. Today, the government ought to accept responsibility for the consequences of its acts.” Wisconsin Republican Party director Mark Jefferson says Thompson’s exoneration means nothing, and the Doyle administration should still be investigated regarding the contract process. [Associated Press, 4/5/2007; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 4/5/2007] Wisconsin lawyer Chris Van Wagner later says of the appeals court’s decision: “That is more than a legal ruling; it’s a slap in the face. This, no question about it, is a major affront to the government in many ways. Most significantly, it said you should have never brought this case.… Two or three cases out of 100 are vacated. This case wasn’t just vacated and sent back for a retrial, but rather the judges ordered an acquittal.” [Christopher T. Van Wagner, 4/2007] Law professor Michael O’Hear agrees that the decision is unusual. “If this was a finding of insufficient evidence, what they’re saying is it’s unjust that Georgia Thompson has been in prison the last few months,” he says. [Wisconsin State Journal, 4/6/2007]

Entity Tags: Frank Easterbrook, Diane T. Wood, Adelman Travel, William Bauer, Steven M. Biskupic, Stephen Hurley, Michael O’Hear, James E. (“Jim”) Doyle, Georgia Lee Thompson, Mark Jefferson, Chris Van Wagner, Mark Andrew Green

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Critics say that the legal pursuit of former Wisconsin state purchasing official Georgia Thompson, whose conviction on corruption charges was overturned by a federal appeals court (see April 5, 2007), may have been politically motivated. State Representative David Travis (D-Westport) says Thompson was persecuted by US Attorney Steven Biskupic, a Bush administration appointee. “I think it’s right out of the Karl Rove playbook,” he says, referring to White House political chief Karl Rove. “I never thought I’d see a prosecution like this. That woman is innocent. He’s ruined her life.” Republicans used Thompson’s prosecution and conviction (see June 13, 2006) as a centerpiece of their attempt to thwart the re-election attempts of Governor Jim Doyle (D-WI), who survived a 2006 challenge by Mark Green (R-WI), who accused Doyle of corruption throughout the campaign. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) calls on Congress to investigate the prosecution, saying the prosecution ties into Congress’s investigation into the firing of eight US Attorneys (see December 7, 2006 and December 20, 2006). “Congress should also look into whether partisan politics influenced, or even dictated, the investigations conducted by the US Attorneys’ offices in order to stay in the [Bush] administration’s good graces,” Baldwin says. “The 7th Circuit acquittal of Georgia Thompson, after a widely publicized pre-election prosecution, certainly raises serious questions about the integrity and motivation of the prosecutor.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asks Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to turn over all of the Justice Department’s records in the Georgia Thompson case to the committee, “including any communications between the Justice Department, the White House, and any other outside party, including party officials.” Leahy, joined by Wisconsin’s two senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Russell Feingold (D-WI), also asks Gonzales to turn over records related to voter fraud investigations in Wisconsin (see Early 2005) and any records pertaining to Biskupic’s possible firing. Wisconsin Democrats have long considered Thompson’s prosecution an attempt to besmirch Doyle before the 2006 election, and have accused Biskupic of mounting a politically motivated pursuit of an innocent government official. [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 4/7/2007; Associated Press, 4/10/2007; Associated Press, 4/10/2007] Feingold says in a statement that Thompson was the victim of a “miscarriage of justice,” and adds, “In light of ongoing concerns about the politicization of US Attorneys’ offices around the country, I am seeking further information from the Department of Justice on how this case and voter fraud cases after the 2004 election came about and whether there was improper political pressure to pursue them.” [Federal Document Clearing House, 4/10/2007]
Denials of Political Motivations - Biskupic’s First Assistant US Attorney (FAUSA) Michelle Jacobs says that the prosecution of Thompson was not politically motivated, and the office received no contact from the White House or the Justice Department. “They acted on the evidence as they found it, convinced a jury of 12 that there was criminal conduct, convinced a judge who has been sitting on a state and federal bench for 33 years that the verdict was sound,” Jacobs says. “But we just did not convince the court of appeals, and we’ll respect the court of appeals decision.” Andy Gussert, president of the state employees union AFT-Wisconsin, says Congress should look into the Thompson case because servants should “not become political footballs to be kicked around.” He adds: “This prosecution raises additional questions that resonate with concerns about the recent firings of US Attorneys. If people are to have faith in our judicial system, those questions will need answers.” Former State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who was involved in the Thompson investigation, says the investigation was not politically motivated. Lautenschlager is a Democrat, but is considered a political enemy of Doyle’s.
Thompson Nearly Destitute - Thompson’s lawyer, Stephen Hurley, says Thompson has been left almost entirely penniless by the case. She lost her $77,300-a-year state job, about $60,000 in back wages, and owes somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 in legal fees. She was forced to cash in her state pension and sell her $264,700 condominium, which she had paid off entirely. Travis says the federal government should pay her lost wages and legal costs, and compensate her for her time in prison. State officials say they are prepared to offer Thompson her old job or a similar position at the same salary, and are investigating whether they can reimburse her back wages and pay her legal bills. Thompson says she does not want her old job back, but would like another job in the same division. She is very concerned with staying out of the public spotlight. [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 4/7/2007; Associated Press, 4/10/2007]
Biskupic Considered for Firing - Unbeknownst to Congress or the press, Biskupic was considered for firing in 2005 (see March 2, 2005), but was later removed from the list of people to be fired. Biskupic himself will soon claim that he did not prosecute Thompson for political purposes (see April 14, 2007).

Entity Tags: David Travis, Andy Gussert, Tammy Baldwin, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43), Alberto R. Gonzales, Stephen Hurley, Russell D. Feingold, Steven M. Biskupic, Patrick J. Leahy, Herbert Kohl, Georgia Lee Thompson, James E. (“Jim”) Doyle, Michelle Jacobs, Karl C. Rove, Peg Lautenschlager, Mark Andrew Green

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An editorial by Adam Cohen in the New York Times concurs that Wisconsin state employee Georgia Thompson was the victim of a politically motivated prosecution. Thompson’s conviction on corruption charges was recently overturned (see April 5, 2007), and critics are now alleging that state Republicans used the Thompson case to help defeat incumbent Governor Jim Doyle (D-WI), who defeated a Republican challenger in November 2006 (see April 7-10, 2007). “The entire affair is raising serious questions about why a United States Attorney put an innocent woman in jail,” Cohen writes. Cohen implies that US Attorney Steven Biskupic of Wisconsin may have pursued the Thompson allegations in order to avoid being fired in the 2006 US Attorney purge (see December 7, 2006 and December 20, 2006). “Members of Congress should ask whether it was by coincidence or design that [Biskupic] turned a flimsy case into a campaign issue that nearly helped Republicans win a pivotal governor’s race,” he writes. The appeals court that overturned Thompson’s conviction was “shocked,” Cohen writes, at the lack of evidence against Thompson. Moreover, Biskupic, the US Attorney for Eastern Wisconsin, took over the case even though it originated in Madison, in the Western District. And he spoke to reporters about the investigation, in apparent defiance of Justice Department guidelines saying federal prosecutors can publicly discuss investigations before an indictment only under extraordinary circumstances. Cohen says the scheduling of the prosecution “worked out perfectly for the Republican candidate for governor. Mr. Biskupic announced Ms. Thompson’s indictment in January 2006. She went to trial that summer, and was sentenced in late September, weeks before the election.” While Biskupic has denied that the timing of the prosecution was “tied to the political calendar,” it was, says Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Joe Wineke, “the No. 1 issue” in the governor’s race. Cohen then writes: “Most of the eight dismissed prosecutors came from swing states, and Democrats suspect they may have been purged to make room for prosecutors who would help Republicans win close elections. If so, it might also mean that United States Attorneys in all swing states were under unusual pressure. Wisconsin may be the closest swing state of all.” President Bush lost Wisconsin by a vanishingly small margin of 12,000 votes in 2004, and by an even narrower margin in 2000. Wisconsin politicians say that Karl Rove, the White House’s political chief, told them Wisconsin was his highest priority, because he believed that having a Republican win the 2006 gubernatorial race would help Republicans win in the 2008 presidential election. Cohen concludes by pointing out the irony of one element of the prosecution: Biskupic charged that Thompson committed the alleged crime to obtain “political advantage for her superiors” and to improve her own “job security.” Cohen writes, “Those motivations, of course, may well describe why Mr. Biskupic prosecuted Ms. Thompson. [New York Times, 4/16/2007]
Biskupic Considered for Firing - Biskupic was considered for firing in 2005 (see March 2, 2005), but was later removed from the list of attorneys under consideration for removal.

Entity Tags: James E. (“Jim”) Doyle, Adam Cohen, Georgia Lee Thompson, Karl C. Rove, Steven M. Biskupic, Joe Wineke, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department is investigating four cases of alleged selective prosecution, including the prosecution and overturned conviction of Wisconsin government official Georgia Thompson by former US Attorney Steven Biskupic (see April 5, 2007). The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) informs the House Judiciary Committee of the investigations, in a letter signed by OPR chief H. Marshall Jarrett. Since Thompson’s conviction was overturned over a year ago, her prosecution has been widely criticized as giving the appearance of being politically motivated (see April 7-10, 2007, April 16, 2007, and April 24, 2007). Committee members John Conyers (D-MI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Linda Sanchez (D-CA) are spearheading the committee’s probe into the Thompson prosecution. Many suspect that Biskupic prosecuted Thompson in order to avoid being fired in the 2006 US Attorney purge (see March 10, 2006, December 7, 2006, and December 20, 2006). Biskupic has denied knowing he was being considered for termination before he opened his prosecution of Thompson (see March 2, 2005), though he has also admitted to learning about being on the “purge” list after the fact (see April 14, 2007). After he opened that investigation, his name disappeared from the list. [WisPolitics Courtwatch Blog, 5/23/2008; Capital Times, 5/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Office of Professional Responsibility, Georgia Lee Thompson, H. Marshall Jarrett, Linda Sanchez, Tammy Baldwin, John Conyers, US Department of Justice, Steven M. Biskupic

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The House Judiciary Committee releases a May 5 letter written to Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR—see May 5, 2008). The letter advises Conyers that OPR is investigating “allegations of selective prosecution relating to the prosecutions of Don Siegelman, Georgia Thompson, and Oliver Diaz and Paul Minor.” The House and Senate Judiciary Committees are investigating widespread allegations of politically-driven prosecutions by the Justice Department under the Bush administration. Former Governor Don Siegelman (D-AL) is facing bribery charges. Georgia Thompson is a former Wisconsin state employee convicted of corruption by US Attorney Steven Biskupic (see April 14, 2007), but who was set free after an appeals court found the case against her irreparably flawed. Diaz, a former Mississippi State Supreme Court justice, and Minor, a Mississippi lawyer, were both prosecuted by US Attorney Dunn Lampton, and the cases for both are being investigated by the House Judiciary Committee as being possibly driven by partisan political interests. [TPM Muckraker, 2/25/2008; TPM Muckraker, 5/22/2008; Talking Points Memo, 2011]

Entity Tags: John Conyers, Bush administration (43), Don E. Siegelman, House Judiciary Committee, Senate Judiciary Committee, Steven M. Biskupic, Oliver Diaz, Paul Minor, Dunn O. Lampton

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

An internal Justice Department (DOJ) audit by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) that found the department’s hiring practices were politically motivated in some instances has led critics to renew charges that DOJ officials, including US Attorneys, may have brought groundless charges against Democrats in order to affect elections. The audit, the results of which were recently made public, found that Bush administration officials implemented a policy in 2002 to screen out applicants with liberal or Democratic affiliations. The audit found that such disqualifications “constituted misconduct and also violated the department’s policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliation.” Former Governor Don Siegelman (D-AL), convicted of bribery charges that he has said were politically motivated, says, “[The audit] validates and verifies what we all knew was taking place, and that is that under [the Bush administration] the Justice Department has been politicized and used as a political tool.” The OPR is investigating several cases, including Siegelman’s, along with charges filed against Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. and Wisconsin state procurement official Georgia Thompson (see May 5, 2008 and May 22, 2008). Federal prosecutors have denied the cases were filed for any political reasons, prompting House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) to say, “The department’s bald denials that politics never affected the cases under investigation simply cannot be taken at face value.” Thompson’s attorney Stephen Hurley says: “What they’ve said is politics played a role in personnel decisions. The question is did it play any role in decisions to prosecute? The latter is a much more serious issue.” He says he is ready to speak with officials from OPR. “I’d be glad if somebody called me because I have facts they might want to know,” Hurley says. [Associated Press, 6/25/2008]

Entity Tags: Office of Professional Responsibility, Bush administration (43), Don E. Siegelman, John Conyers, Oliver Diaz, US Department of Justice, Georgia Lee Thompson, Stephen Hurley

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Former US Attorney Steven Biskupic is cleared of any wrongdoing in his failed prosecution of Wisconsin government official Georgia Thompson. Since Thompson’s conviction was overturned in 2007 (see April 5, 2007), her prosecution has been widely criticized as giving the appearance of being politically motivated (see April 7-10, 2007, April 16, 2007, and April 24, 2007). Biskupic left his position in 2008 and is now in private practice at a Milwaukee law firm. In 2008, the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) was investigating Biskupic and his prosecution of Thompson (see May 5, 2008). OPR reports that it “found no evidence that Mr. Biskupic was ever told his job was in jeopardy and no evidence that department personnel involved in the decision to remove certain United States Attorneys knew anything about the Thompson investigation.” The information is given to the House Judiciary Committee by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch. The committee had requested the investigation into Biskupic. “OPR also found that Mr. Biskupic took special measures to ensure that politics did not play a role in the case by enlisting the support and assistance of state officials who were Democrats, including using state investigative resources,” Welch adds. “Accordingly, OPR concluded that Mr. Biskupic did not breach any professional obligation in this matter, but rather, acted appropriately under the circumstances.” Biskupic says: “I’ll let the letter speak for itself.… I spent almost 20 years in the department. I remain proud of the work I did under multiple administrations.” [Wall Street Journal, 5/28/2010; Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 5/28/2010] After the OPR releases its findings, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel publishes an editorial praising the findings and saying that Biskupic’s integrity “should [never] have been in doubt.” [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 6/1/2010]

Entity Tags: Georgia Lee Thompson, Steven M. Biskupic, Office of Professional Responsibility, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Ronald Welch

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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