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The U.S. attorney 'purge'

February 8, 2007 | 11:57 am

   In one of the more anti-climactic congressional hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday delved into allegations that the Bush administration might be trying to cover up wrongdoing by replacing several U.S. attorneys, including San Diego's Carol Lam, who presided over the prosecution of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

   No smoking gun was produced for that conspiracy theory - but that didn’t stop a New York Times editorial from demanding that "the Senate should keep pushing for answers-and for non-partisan prosecutors to be placed and kept in these important positions."

   At the hearings, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sounded a similar note of suspicion, but Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty parried pretty effectively - saying that "U.S. attorneys are never -- repeat, never -- removed, or asked or encouraged to resign, in an effort to retaliate against them, or interfere with, or inappropriately influence a particular investigation, criminal prosecution, or civil case."

    McNulty also refuted the notion that the Bush administration is abusing an arcane provision of the Patriot Act that allows the attorney general, rather than a federal judge, to appoint interim U.S. attorneys. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed legislation to return to the old system of judicial appointment.

   The critics are right about one thing: Politics plays a part in the appointment of U.S. attorneys - as it seems to have done in the temporary replacement of a U.S. attorney in Arkansas with a lawyer who once worked fro Karl Rove. But there’s nothing unprecedented about presidents using U.S. attorneys’ positions as political plums.

  Nor is it unusual for changes in U.S. attorneys to give rise to conspiracy theories.  In 1993 The New York Times published a story with this provocative lead:

    "Attorney General Janet Reno today demanded the prompt resignation of all United States attorneys, leading the federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia to suggest that the order could be tied to his long-running investigation of Representative Dan Rostenkowski, a crucial ally of President Clinton."

   Rostenkowski was indicted in 1994 under the aegis of a Democratic U.S. attorney, and later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

   Sometimes, where there’s smoke, there’s smoke. So far, that seems to be the case with the great U.S. attorney purge.

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