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Newly appointed US Attorney John McKay of the Western District of Washington State (see October 24, 2001) begins investigating the murder of Thomas C. Wales, an Assistant US Attorney (AUSA) in the office. Wales, a popular AUSA and a strong advocate of gun control, was murdered three weeks before McKay took office, when someone shot and killed him through his basement window. Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis had recused the office from investigating the crime, because, McKay will later state, the Justice Department (DOJ) had no confidence in the prosecutor initially assigned to the case. Moreover, as the case was a likely candidate for a death penalty prosecution, he will tell a reporter that the office is recused because “[y]ou couldn’t have Tom’s friends in the office making those kinds of decisions.”
Begins Pressuring Justice Department - Shortly after taking office, McKay begins pressuring Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Larry Thompson to replace the prosecutor on the Wales case. McKay will recall having several “tense conversations” with Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Christopher Wray concerning this issue. In March 2002, the DOJ assigns a more experienced prosecutor to the case. The DOJ sends no additional manpower to Seattle to help with the case, and initially offers a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer, an amount FBI Special Agent Charles Mandigo will later call “insultingly small.” (After McKay’s intervention, the DOJ later raises the reward to $1 million.) McKay later says that while he is not directly involved in the investigation, he pushed hard for the DOJ to commit more resources to the investigation, and felt it was his responsibility to act as a conduit between the Seattle FBI office and the DOJ regarding resources for the case. He will say that while he was assertive, he remained professional and appropriate in his conduct; no one in the DOJ ever complained to him about his actions, he will say. “My mistake was that I assumed ‘recusal’ was ‘recusal’,” he will say. “I had erred in assuming that I was completely recused from even asking questions about the allocation of resources. I assumed it would have the highest priority within the Department of Justice. I once worked at the FBI for a year, and during that time an agent was killed in Las Vegas. They deploy like crazy when an agent is killed. Agents got off the airplane that night from DC to investigate. The director of the FBI flew out. That was not the reaction we were getting from the Department of Justice after Tom Wales was killed. Over 2002, I decided that really it should be my job to advocate for appropriate resources to be devoted to the Wales case.”
Speculation as to Politicization of Investigation - Many involved in the investigation believe that the Wales murder is a low priority for the DOJ because his liberal politics clash with the rightward tilt of the senior officials appointed by the Bush administration.
Aggressive but Appropriate - A 2008 Justice Department investigation of the 2006 US Attorney firings (see September 29, 2008) will find no reason to dispute McKay’s recollection of events. Both Thompson and Wray will describe McKay as being aggressive about making sure the investigation has adequate resources. Thompson will recall no tension between himself and McKay, though he will recall some of his then-staff members complaining about McKay’s pressure and demands for resources. Thompson will admit to becoming irritated with McKay on occasion, but will emphasize that McKay conducted himself in an appropriate manner at all times. It was “not new in the annals of the Department of Justice [that] a DAG got aggravated with a US Attorney,” he will say. He will not recall discussing the matter with Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the architect of the plan to fire the US Attorneys (see November 15, 2006). Wray will recall that some in the DOJ considered McKay to be “high maintenance,” in regard to the Wales investigation and with other issues. While some in the DAG’s office informally discussed McKay’s behavior among themselves, Wray will recall, no formal review of his conduct was ever undertaken. Wray will also not recall any discussions with Sampson, though he will say he kept Gonzales’s office apprised of the events surrounding the Wales investigation. Margolis will recall McKay being somewhat emotional about the Wales case and extremely pushy, he found his conduct entirely justifiable considering the situation. Margolis will say that he doubts Sampson would have listed McKay for removal because of his interactions with Thompson. (Toobin 8/6/2007; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008)
Remains Unsolved - The Wales murder will remain unsolved. (Toobin 8/6/2007)
The chief judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of California sends news articles about US Attorney for the Northern District of California Kevin Ryan (see August 2, 2002) to Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis. For some time, San Francisco newspapers have reported on turmoil and turnover in Ryan’s office, with several experienced prosecutors leaving, allegedly due to Ryan’s management style. The judge complains to Margolis about Ryan’s leadership style. Margolis discusses the situation with Mary Beth Buchanan, the head of the Executive Office of US Attorneys, and they decide to discuss the issue with Ryan. However, they take no immediate action. (US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008) Buchanan will later say: “The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California had a long history of problems. The problems in the office predated Kevin Ryan’s tenure as the United States Attorney. Shortly after Kevin Ryan became the United States Attorney, there were discussions about his management style. I don’t recall exactly when these communications came to the attention of the Executive Office. What I can tell you is that, at some point, these communications escalated, and there were letters that were sent to the deputy attorney general, there were numerous newspaper articles that appeared in the press. And after the escalation of these concerns, I meet [sic] with Kevin Ryan and his first assistant along with David Margolis in an attempt to address some of the management concerns.… I know that Kevin Ryan had a number of significant computer crime and intellectual property cases, so I think that there were certainly good things that were done in Mr. Ryan’s office.” (US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary 6/15/2007 )
The latest of several experienced prosecutors quits his job at the office of US Attorney Kevin Ryan of the Northern District of California (see August 2, 2002). The prosecutor sends an office-wide “open letter” to Ryan complaining about long-standing morale and attrition problems, and credits Ryan’s poor management style with creating the issue. The letter is quickly forwarded to staff members in other US Attorneys’ offices, and to the Executive Office for US Attorneys (EOUSA) in the Justice Department. Complaints about Ryan have already been forwarded to the EOUSA (see Fall 2004). The chief judge in Ryan’s district, who made the earlier complaint, sends Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis the open letter and asks him to consider the issue. Margolis and EOUSA chief Mary Beth Buchanan schedule a meeting with Ryan and his First Assistant US Attorney for March 21. Margolis will later say of the meeting that he “read [Ryan] the riot act” about the issues in his office, and suggests that Ryan should ask the Justice Department to undertake a special review of his management issues. Margolis will later say that Ryan does not request such a review. (US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008)
Deputy Attorney General James Comey expresses his concerns with US Attorney Kevin Ryan (see Fall 2004 and January 31 - March 21, 2005) to Kyle Sampson, the deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see February 15, 2005) and the person in charge of the Justice Department’s planned purge of US Attorneys. On his initial list of US Attorneys, Sampson labeled Ryan as “strong” and did not list him as ripe for ousting (see January 9, 2005 and March 2, 2005). Comey tells Sampson that he considers Ryan a weak performer based on the documented morale problems in the office. Other Justice Department officials such as Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis and Executive Office for US Attorneys chief Mary Beth Buchanan share similar concerns with Sampson around this time. Comey tells Sampson that he knows Buchanan’s office is concerned about Ryan and is working with Margolis to address the problems. (US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008)
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt (R-MO) awards a no-bid contract to Tracy Graves, the wife of US Attorney Todd Graves (see October 11, 2001), to manage a motor vehicle license office near Kansas City. In Missouri, license agents are independent contractors who receive a portion of the fees their offices collect. On March 1, Cory Dillon, the executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, urges Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to fire Graves based on his wife’s acceptance of the contract. Dillon points out that in addition to Tracy Graves, her brother and two staff members from the office of Representative Sam Graves (R-MO), Todd Graves’s brother, have also been awarded similar contracts. The Kansas City Star reports on Dillon’s letter to Gonzales on March 2, and the day after runs an editorial accusing Todd Graves of a “clear conflict of interest” if he is ever led to investigate the Blunt administration. Gonzales’s chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, refers the matter to Chuck Rosenberg, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Sampson’s March 16 email to Rosenberg indicates that the White House is interested in the matter, and has asked, ”(1) whether we have looked into the allegations made against Graves… and (2) what our conclusion is, i.e., whether we are comfortable that he doesn’t have any legal or ethical issues.” The matter is referred by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis to the Executive Office for US Attorneys (EOUSA), which in turn refers the matter to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). That office, after reviewing the matter and consulting with Margolis, decides not to open an investigation. On April 8, Margolis informs Graves that he has “determined that there is no existing conflict of interest that requires further action at this time.” Graves will tell Justice Department investigators probing the 2006 US Attorney purge (see September 29, 2008) that he himself had brought the Dillon complaint to the attention of EOUSA Director Mary Beth Buchanan after reading about it on the Internet. He considers the allegations groundless. He will say that at no time did anyone in the Justice Department ever raise any questions concerning the propriety of his wife’s contract, or allege that her contract put his position as US Attorney in jeopardy. And, he will state, no Justice Department official ever raised concerns with him about his performance (see March 2002). However, Principal Assistant Deputy Attorney General William Mercer will later recall Sampson voicing “real concerns” about the contract because, Mercer will say, Sampson feels it does not reflect well on the US Attorney’s office. Margolis will speculate that this issue is what prompts Sampson to put Graves on the list of US Attorneys he feels should be fired (see January 1-9, 2006), though he will say he cannot be sure because he never spoke to Sampson about it. Sampson does not express any such concerns in his email to Rosenberg. When investigators ask Sampson about the matter, he will claim memory loss, saying he has no recollection of being involved in any way with Graves’s firing. As the investigators will write, “Sampson also did not express any consternation about the license fee contract matter to us during his interview, and he essentially disclaimed any responsibility for requesting Graves’s resignation.” (US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008) During this time, the legal counsel for Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), Jack Bartling, will issue repeated demands to the White House that Graves be fired, in part because of Tracy Graves’s contract but largely because of conflicts between the offices of Bond and Sam Graves (see Spring 2005).
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 ; US Department of Justice 2/15/2005; Eggen and Solomon 3/12/2007; US Department of Justice 3/13/2007 ; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General 9/29/2008; Thomas 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)
Deputy Attorney General James Comey delegates to Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis all authority to deal with the Patrick Fitzgerald investigation into the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak. Comey writes to Margolis: “I delegate to you all of my authority as acting attorney general with respect to that investigation and Mr. Fitzgerald’s service as special counsel, as delineated in [earlier] correspondence [between Comey and Fitzgerald]. This delegation to you in no way retracts or modifies the scope of the prior delegations of authority to Mr. Fitzgerald.” (Office of the Deputy Attorney General 8/12/2005 )
The US Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility refuses to refer two former Bush administration officials to authorities for criminal or civil charges regarding their authorizations of the torture of suspected terrorists (see Before April 22, 2009). John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, two senior officials in the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the legal groundwork that allowed American interrogators to use sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and other torture methods against terror suspects (see Late September 2001, January 9, 2002, and August 1, 2002). The report finds that Yoo and Bybee, along with former OLC head Steven Bradbury, exhibited “poor judgment” in their actions. The OPR refuses to make the report’s conclusions public. It is known that senior Justice Department official David Margolis made the decision not to refer Yoo and Bybee for legal sanctions. (Office of Professional Responsibility, US Department of Justice 7/29/2009 ; Washington Post 1/31/2010)
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