More than eight months after President Barack Obama took office, one third of the country’s U.S. Attorney offices are still run by prosecutors appointed during the administration of Republican George W. Bush, according to a review of data by Main Justice.
At this point in October 2001 — after Bush succeeded Democrat Bill Clinton – less than 9 percent of the slots were occupied by Clinton holdovers.
The data from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Senate show that Obama is moving relatively slowly to replace Bush-era prosecutors.
Of the 93 U.S. Attorney posts nationwide, 23 are occupied by Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorneys appointed by Bush. Another eight U.S. Attorneys who were appointed during the Bush administration, but not confirmed by the Senate, are also serving. That makes a total of 31 Bush-era appointees who are still running the top federal prosecuting offices around the country.
(Click here to see our chart of the eight Clinton holdovers who were still serving in October 2001. Click here for our interactive chart tracking Obama’s progress in filling the 93 U.S. Attorney offices.)
The issue of Bush-holdovers has attracted notice because of the intense partisan battles over Justice Department personnel and actions that took place during the Bush administration. And some of the Bush-era U.S. Attorneys still serving today were at the center of those controversies.
But the bad economy and law firm recession also may explain why so many U.S. Attorneys are lingering in office. Indeed, some are waiting until the last minute to exit.
This week, three Senate-confirmed Bush-era U.S. Attorneys – Gregory Brower in Nevada, Edward Kubo Jr. in Hawaii and Joe Stecher in Nebraska – left office as their Obama-appointed successors were sworn in. Stecher indicated in an interview with Main Justice he hadn’t lined up a new job yet.
Other of the Bush-era U.S. Attorneys who are still in office were among those accused of targeting Democrats for prosecution, or who were involved in the 2006 U.S. Attorney firings that led to congressional investigations, an appointment of a special prosecutor, and the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. While U.S. Attorneys are political appointees, they are expected to carry out the law enforcement duties of their office without regard to partisan politics.
The uproar over the apparent politicization of the Justice Department helped energize Obama’s liberal base in the 2008 presidential election.
But as president, Obama has moved cautiously to replace U.S. Attorneys. While Bill Clinton asked for the resignation of all U.S. Attorneys after taking office in 1993 — a move that was criticized at the time as disruptive — the Obama White House has consulted closely with Republican senators. At times, the White House has delayed moving forward when GOP senators objected to an intended nominee. At the same time, some Democratic senators and House members have been slow in forwarding their recommendations for U.S. Attorneys to the White House, c0ntributing to delays, say people familiar with the process.
“The U.S. Attorney vetting and nomination process is continuing at a steady pace,” DOJ spokesperson Melissa Schwartz wrote in an e-mail to Main Justice.
Meanwhile, several prosecutors most closely identified with the Bush-era controversies remain in office. They include:
- Mary Beth Buchanan, Western Pennsylvania. Buchanan held multiple Bush Justice Department leadership positions in Washington, D.C., while simultaneously serving as the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh since 2001. She headed the Executive Office of United States Attorneys from 2004 to 2005, drawing her into the House Judiciary Committee investigation of the U.S. Attorney firings. A member of the conservative Federalist Society, she is overseeing a sensitive corruption investigation into a group of lobbyists who were close to Democratic Rep. John Murtha. Buchanan told local reporters last November she would not voluntarily step down, according to The Washington Post. In July, former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh asked Attorney General Eric Holder to discipline Buchanan for “vindictively” suggesting at a news conference that a high-profile Democratic defendant was guilty. Her office dismissed all charges against former Allegheny County medical examiner Cyril Wecht after a federal judge threw out evidence that was ruled improperly obtained. Wecht was indicted on fraud and theft charges in January 2006.
- Leura Canary, Middle District of Alabama. Canary, who has been U.S. Attorney since 2001, successfully prosecuted former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D) on corruption charges, in a case that Democrats have alleged was political. Canary is married to GOP activist Bill Canary, who reportedly had close ties to Rove. Canary recused herself from the Siegelman case, which was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin. But Siegelman and congressional Democrats have said evidence provided by a whistle-blower in the office shows that Canary stayed involved in the case after her recusal. A Montgomery criminal defense lawyer, Joe Van Heest, has been vetted to replace Canary. But his nomination has been held up by objections from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who supports a daughter of a political supporter and friend for the job.
- Bill Mercer, District of Montana Mercer, who has been U.S. Attorney since 2001, came under fire for simultaneously serving as Montana U.S. Attorney and as the Justice Department’s Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General in Washington for almost two years. Emails obtained by congressional investigators showed he was involved in the internal Bush administration deliberations that led up to the 2006 U.S. Attorney firings. Obama last week nominated Helena lawyer Michael Cotter to replace Mercer.
Also, George E. B. Holding in North Carolina’s Eastern District remains in office while he oversees cases against two prominent Democrats, former presidential candidate John Edwards and former Gov. Mike Easley. The potential political repercussions of removing the Republican prosecutor from the Edwards and Easley probes has complicated moves to name a successor. Read our previous report on Holding here.
In New Mexico, Gregory J. Fouratt, who was named interim U.S. Attorney a year after the Bush DOJ fired U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, remains at the helm. Fouratt was not confirmed by the Senate, but he has been criticized for his handling of a pay-to-play political corruption probe of Gov. Bill Richardson (D).
In an August letter to defense attorneys announcing the government would not bring charges in the investigation, Fouratt wrote that “pressure from the governor’s office resulted in the corruption of the procurement process” and said that his letter “should not be interpreted as exoneration of any party’s conduct in that matter.” Joseph diGenova, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia during the Reagan administration, told The Associated Press the letter was “stupid” and the New Mexico prosecutor “should be fired” for writing it.
In Alabama’s Northern District, U.S. Attorney Alice Martin stepped down in June after the second of two “courtesy calls” she said she received from officials at Justice Department headquarters in Washington informing her of the progress in nominating and confirming her successor, Joyce Vance. Martin’s critics have accused her of targeting Democrats during her almost eight year tenure – an allegation she has denied.
Martin had moved Vance, a veteran prosecutor in the Birmingham office who colleagues said loved the court room, into a less high-profile job as chief of the district’s appellate section. Observers of the office have told us Martin’s move appeared intended to sideline Vance. Instead, it put Vance in regular contact with appellate judges, who later became influential voices of support when Vance was being vetted by the White House for the job.
Vance took over an interim U.S. Attorney on June 19 and was confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 7. Attorney General Eric Holder attended her swearing-in ceremony. Martin resigned without another job lined up and said she looked forward to spending time with her children.
In addition to Mercer in Montana, other Bush U.S. Attorneys could be out of their jobs soon. Obama has nominated Des Moines lawyer Nick Klinefeldt to succeed Matthew G. Whitaker in the Southern District of Iowa and Stephanie Rose to succeed Matt Dummermuth in the Northern District of Iowa.
Dummermuth took office in January 2007, at the age of 33, under a controversial provision of the Patriot Act — since rescinded — that effectively allowed the White House to install a U.S. Attorney without going through the Senate confirmation process. Bush sent Dummermuth’s formal nomination to the Senate in December 2007, but he didn’t answer questions to the satisfaction of Judiciary Committee Democrats and failed to win confirmation.
It appears likely that at least two Bush appointees will continue to serve in the Obama administration. Northern District of Illinois U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald — who is prosecuting former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) for corruption — is backed by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D). In Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu said she wants Jim Letten in the Eastern District to stay. Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein also has the support of Democrats in his state.
Here is a list of the Senate-confirmed Bush U.S. Attorneys who are still in office:
-Leura Canary (Middle District of Alabama)
-Joseph Russonello (Northern District of California)
-A. Brian Albritton (Middle District of Florida)
-Leonardo Rapados (Guam and Northern Mariana Islands)
-Thomas Moss (Idaho)
-Patrick Fitzgerald (Northern District of Illinois)
-Matthew G. Whitaker (Southern District of Iowa)
-Jim Letten (Eastern District of Louisiana)
-David Dugas (Middle District of Louisiana)
-Donald Washington (Western District of Louisiana)
-Rod Rosenstein (Maryland)
-Jim Greenlee (Northern District of Mississippi)
-Bill Mercer (Montana)
-George E.B. Holding (Eastern District of North Carolina)
-Anna Mills Wagoner (Middle District of North Carolina)
-Sheldon Sperling (Eastern District of Oklahoma)
-Mary Beth Buchanan (Western District of Pennsylvania)
-William Walters Wilkins III (South Carolina)
-James Dedrick (Eastern District of Tennessee)
-Edward Yarbrough (Middle District of Tennessee)
-James McDevitt (Eastern District of Washington)
-Sharon Potter (Northern District of West Virginia)
-Kelly Rankin (Wyoming)
And here is a list of non-Senate confirmed attorneys appointed during the Bush administration who are still in office:
-Thomas F. Kirwin (Northern District of Florida)
-Matt Dummermuth (Northern District of Iowa)
-Paula Silsby (Maine)
-Rosa Emilia Rodriguez-Valez (Puerto Rico)
-Charles T. Miller (Southern District of West Virginia)
-A. Courtney Cox (Southern District of Illinois)
-James Zerhusen (Eastern District of Kentucky)
-Gregory Fouratt (New Mexico)
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.