The prosecutor purge: A case study in damage control

The Justice Department's efforts haven't worked so well, but it's not for lack of trying.

Published March 20, 2007 4:21PM (EDT)

The prosecutor-purge documents the Justice Department turned over to the House Judiciary Committee Monday night read like a case study in heavy-handed damage control. It hasn't worked so well so far, but it's not for a lack of trying:

On Jan. 30, 2007, Kyle Sampson, chief of staff for Alberto Gonzales, forwards to several other top Justice Department officials a draft of a letter to Sen. Mark Pryor regarding the appointment of Friend of Rove Tim Griffin as the interim replacement for ousted Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins. "The attached letter incorporates DOJ edits and WH edits (and has been 'cleared' by WH)," Sampson writes. "I think we need to get it up today, well in advance of [Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty's] hearing next week -- if (God forbid) Pryor shows up at the hearing as a witness and alleges that he wasn't consulted, we discriminated against the FAUSA, we have a conspiracy to keep Tim in office, etc., etc., then we'll want to have this letter to wave around."

On Feb. 1, 2007, Sampson is asked whether he thinks Cummins should accept an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sampson says no, saying he doesn't know how Cummins could answer questions about the circumstances surrounding his firing or his contacts with Griffin.

On Feb. 7, 2007, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse says in an e-mail message to Sampson and Justice Department public affairs chief Tasia Scolinos that Gonzlaes is "extremely upset" with the newspaper stories on McNulty's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and believes that "some of [McNulty's] statements were inaccurate." Roehrkasse asks Sampson to call him and tells Scolinos that Gonzales wants to know "what we can do from a comms perspective. I suggested a clearly worded op-ed and reaching out to ed boards who will write in the coming days. I think from a straight news perspective, we just want the stories to die."

On Feb. 9, 2007, ousted U.S. Attorney Margaret Chiara asks McNulty whether he could help get her a job at the Justice Department's National Advocacy Center in South Carolina. McNulty forwards the request to his chief of staff, Mike Elston, asking "Can we make this happen?" Elston forwards McNulty's message to Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liason with the note: "This idea may help us avoid linking [Chiara's firing] to the others. What do you think?"

On Feb. 20, 2007, Cummins recounts for several other ousted U.S. attorneys a telephone call he had just received during which Elston complained about something Cummins had told the Washington Post. "The essence of his message was that they feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing us specifically or further," Cummins writes in an email to his former colleagues. "But if they feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press or organize behind-the-scenes Congressional pressure, then they would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully."

Later in the same email, Cummins adds: "I don't want to stir you up conflict or overstate the threatening undercurrent of the call, but the message was clearly there and you should be aware before you speak to the press again if you choose to do that. I don't feel like I am betraying [Elston] by reporting this to you because I think that is probably what he wanted me to do. Of course, I would appreciate maximum opsec regarding this email and ask that you not forward it to or let others read it."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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