Friday, March 23, 2007

Attorney fired to make room for Rove protege

New documents show officials prepared for Bush approval before Griffin took job
Dan Eggen, Amy Goldstein, Washington Post
Friday, March 23, 2007

(03-23) 04:00 PDT Washington -- Two months before Bud Cummins was fired as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, a protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove was maneuvering with the Justice Department to take his place.

Last April, Tim Griffin, a Rove aide and longtime GOP operative, sent the attorney general's chief of staff a flattering letter about himself written by Cummins, the prosecutor he was trying to replace, internal e-mails released this week show. Rove and Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, were keenly interested in putting him in the position, the e-mails reveal.

New documents also show that Justice and White House officials were preparing for President Bush's approval of the appointment as early as last summer, five months before Griffin took the job.

The unusual appointment of Griffin, now serving as the interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, has been one of the central issues in the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys, which led to this week's constitutional showdown between Congress and the White House. The Senate Judiciary Committee's decision Thursday to approve subpoenas to force Rove, Miers and deputy White House Counsel William Kelley to testify about the firings follows similar action by a House panel. The committees' chairmen, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., so far appear in no rush to issue the subpoenas, and private negotiations with the White House continue.

Some of the thousands of pages of e-mails released this week underscore the extraordinary planning and effort, at the highest levels of the Justice Department and White House, to secure Griffin a job running one of the smaller U.S. attorney's offices in the country.

The e-mails show how Kyle Sampson, then the attorney general's chief of staff, and other Justice officials prepared to use a change in federal law to bypass input from Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who had expressed doubts about placing a former Republican National Committee operative in charge of a U.S. attorney's office. The evidence runs contrary to assurances from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that no such move had been planned.

"This was a very loyal soldier to the Republicans and the Bush administration, and they wanted to reward him," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. "They had every right to do this, but it's the way they handled it, and the way they tried to cover their tracks and mislead Congress, that has turned this into a fiasco for them."

Griffin declined to comment Thursday but said in a previous interview that he was being unfairly maligned by Democrats. He has announced that he will not seek Senate confirmation to become Little Rock's chief federal prosecutor but will remain until a replacement is found.

In political circles, Griffin is widely considered an aggressive and accomplished Republican political operative. He was research director at the Republican National Committee during Bush's 2004 campaign, and he went to work for Rove at the White House in 2005.

Administration officials and many Republicans say that regardless of politics, Griffin has the credentials to be U.S. attorney.

"He's more qualified to hold that position than most of the people who came to that job in the first term," said Mark Corallo, who worked as the Justice Department's communication director when John Ashcroft was attorney general. Cummins' dismissal differs from the firings of the seven other ousted federal prosecutors in several respects. Cummins was told he was being removed last June, and the rest were told on Dec. 7. Justice Department officials also have not publicly said Cummins' departure was related to his performance in office, as they have with the others. They acknowledged last month that he was fired simply to make room for Griffin.

But documents show that Cummins was clearly a target of Sampson's two-year effort to fire a group of U.S. attorneys who did not qualify as what he called "loyal Bushies." He was recommended for removal as early as March 2005.

Cummins said he had no idea of those plans until he was notified of his firing last June. Sometime in the next couple of months, he said, it became clear that Griffin was going to get the job, and Cummins stepped aside in December.

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