Was a U.S. attorney sacked for fighting GOP corruption?

Questions continue swirling as to the "real problem" Bush officials may have had with fired U.S. attorney Carol Lam.

Published March 14, 2007 10:22PM (EDT)

As the scandal over the extraordinary purge of eight U.S. attorneys blows wide open, top Bush officials continue to stand by their rather remarkable story that the firings were all based on either performance problems or policy disputes. The strong track records of the sacked U.S. attorneys, most of whom landed on Capitol Hill for a riveting day of testimony last week, make that story look like so much fiction. And speculation continues to swirl about the real reasons for the firings, which many experts and insiders say were clearly political and an ominous violation of the Justice Department's time-honored independence from the White House.

That partisan designs were behind the firings only became clearer on Tuesday when congressional investigators received a pile of emails exchanged between top Bush and Justice Department officials. Among the illuminating details was talk of favoring U.S. attorneys who had "exhibited loyalty" to President Bush.

Apparently Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney pushed out of her post in San Diego, was not one of them. In her case, the administration has cited differences over the handling of immigration cases -- though Lam debunked the fuzzy math behind those claims during the Captiol Hill hearings. Many have continued to wonder if the real reason for her ouster might have to do with her efforts in taking down some powerful Republicans on corruption charges, including Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who is now behind bars.

There is no evidence to date that Lam's work on corruption led to her ouster. But there are perhaps some clues in the pile of emails made public Tuesday. TPM Muckraker's Paul Kiel, who has done a terrific job of covering the U.S. attorneys story from the start, notes today that Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff (who resigned this week), had Lam on his hit list months before the Cunningham scandal came to light in June 2005. Meanwhile, nearly a year after the Cunningham story broke, Lam's investigation led to Rep. Jerry Lewis, then the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. On May 11, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that federal prosecutors were looking into Lewis' handing out of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal contracts, in a widening of Lam's corruption probe in southern California.

The same day of that L.A. Times report -- May 11, 2006 -- Sampson sent an email to deputy White House counsel William Kelley. He requested that Kelley call him to discuss, among other items related to plans for firing the U.S. attorneys, "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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