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Context of 'February 28, 2005: Deputy Attorney General Considers US Attorney ‘Weak’ due to Morale Problems in Office'

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The chief judge for the US District Court for the Northern District of California sends news articles about US Attorney for the Northern District of California Kevin Ryan (see August 2, 2002) to Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis. For some time, San Francisco newspapers have reported on turmoil and turnover in Ryan’s office, with several experienced prosecutors leaving, allegedly due to Ryan’s management style. The judge complains to Margolis about Ryan’s leadership style. Margolis discusses the situation with Mary Beth Buchanan, the head of the Executive Office of US Attorneys, and they decide to discuss the issue with Ryan. However, they take no immediate action. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008] Buchanan will later say: “The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California had a long history of problems. The problems in the office predated Kevin Ryan’s tenure as the United States Attorney. Shortly after Kevin Ryan became the United States Attorney, there were discussions about his management style. I don’t recall exactly when these communications came to the attention of the Executive Office. What I can tell you is that, at some point, these communications escalated, and there were letters that were sent to the deputy attorney general, there were numerous newspaper articles that appeared in the press. And after the escalation of these concerns, I meet [sic] with Kevin Ryan and his first assistant along with David Margolis in an attempt to address some of the management concerns.… I know that Kevin Ryan had a number of significant computer crime and intellectual property cases, so I think that there were certainly good things that were done in Mr. Ryan’s office.” [US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 6/15/2007 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Kevin J. Ryan, Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), US Department of Justice, David Margolis, Mary Beth Buchanan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer Kyle Sampson (see 2001-2003) responds to an email from White House deputy counsel David Leitch regarding the proposed firing of some or all of the nation’s 93 US Attorneys (see January 6, 2005). Sampson confirms that he has spoken with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales about the proposal “a couple of weeks ago” (see Late December 2004). Sampson delineates his “thoughts” to Leitch in four points. He notes that while US Attorneys serve at the “pleasure of the president,” they generally serve four-year terms. (Sampson is aware that all 93 US Attorneys have been informed that they will not be asked to resign as President Bush’s second term commences—see November 4, 2004—and is also aware that Gonzales and White House deputy counsel Harriet Miers are discussing replacing some or all of the US Attorneys—see November 2004 and Late December 2004.) It would be “weird” to ask them to leave before their terms are complete. Sampson goes on to note the “historical” practice of allowing US Attorneys to complete their terms, even if there is a party change in the administration; he does not mention that the incoming 1992 Clinton administration, and the incoming 2000 Bush administration, both asked all or almost all 93 US Attorneys to leave without regard to completing their terms (see March 24, 1993 and January 2001). Sampson then writes that “as an operational matter, we would like to replace 15-20 percent of the current US Attorneys—the underperforming ones. (This is a rough guess; we might want to consider doing performance evaluations after Judge [Gonzales] comes on board.) The vast majority of US Attorneys, 80-85 percent, I would guess, are doing a great job, are loyal Bushies, etc., etc. Due to the history, it would certainly send ripples through the US Attorney community if we told folks that they got one term only (as a general matter, the Reagan US Attorneys appointed in 1981 stayed on through the entire Reagan administration; Bush 41 even had to establish that Reagan-appointed US Attorneys would not be permitted to continue on through the Bush 41 administration—indeed, even performance evaluations likely would create ripples, though this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing).” Sampson predicts that “as a political matter… I suspect that when push comes to shove, home-state senators likely would resist wholesale (or even piecemeal) replacement of US Attorneys they recommended.” However, he writes, “if Karl [Rove, the White House political chief] thinks there would be policitical [sic] will to do it, then so do I.” [US Department of Justice, 1/9/2005 pdf file; ABC News, 3/15/2007; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008; US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 7/7/2009 pdf file; Talking Points Memo, 2011] The original email seems to come from another aide in the White House Counsel’s Office, Colin Newman, who told Leitch that Rove “stopped by to ask you (roughly quoting) ‘how we planned to proceed regarding US Attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them, or selectively replace them, etc.’ I told him that you would be on the hill all day for the judge’s hearing, and he said the matter was not urgent.” Leitch responded by forwarding the email to Sampson with the comment, “Let’s discuss.” [US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 6/15/2009 pdf file] Newman’s email is dated January 6, and the reference to “the judge’s hearing” seems to refer to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales’s contentious hearing on the Geneva Conventions before the Senate Judiciary Committee on that date (see January 6, 2005).
Downplaying White House Involvement - In the 2008 investigation of the US Attorney firings by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (see September 29, 2008), Leitch will say that he has no recollection of discussing the matter with Sampson, Rove, or anyone else. He will leave the White House Counsel’s Office shortly after this email exchange. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008] In 2009, Miers will testify that she does not recall specifics of these discussions. She will say: “I don’t have a recollection of that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened, that would be some general discussion of, well, we have the Justice Department saying we have a certain number that we feel should be looked at and that that is better because it doesn’t create the upheaval that removing all of the US Attorneys would have. I think the original discussion did not involve the kind of plan, as that term has been used, that eventually evolved.” At this point, Miers will say, the idea of firing a large number of US Attorneys on the same day had not been discussed. The Justice Department, she will say, would make the decisions as to whom, if anyone, should be terminated, not the White House. Asked specifically about Rove’s Office of Political Affairs (OPA), she will say that it would merely play a consulting role in the process: “I did ask that they assist, in the areas where there might be removals, the location of sources for recommendations. And so the political office was as it is called; they had the political piece.” The Counsel’s Office would not ask OPA for recommendations of replacements for the ousted US Attorneys, she says: “We would turn to them for identification of the sources that you could go to and ask for people to be considered. You wouldn’t turn to them and say tell us who we ought to recommend.” However, “if they had a preference for, someone, they would state it so that they certainly had input.” [US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 6/15/2009 pdf file] In 2009, Rove will deny ever seeing the email or discussing the matter with Sampson, and will say, “The implication that somehow this was addressed to me and I somehow received it is inaccurate.” [US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 7/7/2009 pdf file] Miers claims no memory of Rove ever attending a Judicial Selection Committee meeting to discuss the removal of a specific US Attorney. She will recall discussions of the removal of US Attorney David Iglesias (see October 18, 2001) by OPA members, including Rove. [US House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, 6/15/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Colin Newman, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush administration (43), White House Counsel’s Office, White House Office of Political Affairs, Harriet E. Miers, D. Kyle Sampson, Karl C. Rove, Clinton administration, David Leitch, David C. Iglesias

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The latest of several experienced prosecutors quits his job at the office of US Attorney Kevin Ryan of the Northern District of California (see August 2, 2002). The prosecutor sends an office-wide “open letter” to Ryan complaining about long-standing morale and attrition problems, and credits Ryan’s poor management style with creating the issue. The letter is quickly forwarded to staff members in other US Attorneys’ offices, and to the Executive Office for US Attorneys (EOUSA) in the Justice Department. Complaints about Ryan have already been forwarded to the EOUSA (see Fall 2004). The chief judge in Ryan’s district, who made the earlier complaint, sends Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis the open letter and asks him to consider the issue. Margolis and EOUSA chief Mary Beth Buchanan schedule a meeting with Ryan and his First Assistant US Attorney for March 21. Margolis will later say of the meeting that he “read [Ryan] the riot act” about the issues in his office, and suggests that Ryan should ask the Justice Department to undertake a special review of his management issues. Margolis will later say that Ryan does not request such a review. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Kevin J. Ryan, Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), Mary Beth Buchanan, David Margolis, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appoints three Justice Department officials to senior positions, including lawyer D. Kyle Sampson as his deputy chief of staff. Sampson serves under Theodore Ullyot, who is now Gonzales’s chief of staff. Ullyot comes to the department from the White House, where he was a deputy assistant to the president and deputy staff secretary. Sampson has been a counselor to the attorney general since 2003 (see 2001-2003), and also serves as a Special Assistant US Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. Like Ullyot, Sampson also served a stint in the White House, as associate counsel to the president and as special assistant to the president and associate director for presidential personnel. [US Department of Justice, 2/15/2005] In October 2005, Ullyot will leave the Justice Department to work in the corporate realm, resulting in the promotion of Sampson to chief of staff. [Forbes, 2013]

Entity Tags: Theodore W. (“Ted”) Ullyot, D. Kyle Sampson, US Department of Justice, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Deputy Attorney General James Comey expresses his concerns with US Attorney Kevin Ryan (see Fall 2004 and January 31 - March 21, 2005) to Kyle Sampson, the deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see February 15, 2005) and the person in charge of the Justice Department’s planned purge of US Attorneys. On his initial list of US Attorneys, Sampson labeled Ryan as “strong” and did not list him as ripe for ousting (see January 9, 2005 and March 2, 2005). Comey tells Sampson that he considers Ryan a weak performer based on the documented morale problems in the office. Other Justice Department officials such as Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis and Executive Office for US Attorneys chief Mary Beth Buchanan share similar concerns with Sampson around this time. Comey tells Sampson that he knows Buchanan’s office is concerned about Ryan and is working with Margolis to address the problems. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), David Margolis, US Department of Justice, D. Kyle Sampson, James B. Comey Jr., Kevin J. Ryan, Mary Beth Buchanan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department official Kyle Sampson (see 2001-2003), now the deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see February 15, 2005) as well as the Special Assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, sends an email to Gonzales’s successor, senior White House counsel Harriet Miers. Sampson is responding to a late February request for recommendations for firing US Attorneys in case the White House decides to ask for resignations from a “subset” of those officials (see February 24, 2005 and After). In the email, Sampson ranks all 93 US Attorneys, using a set of three broad criteria. Strong performers exhibit “loyalty to the president and attorney general” (see January 9, 2005). Poor performers are, he writes, “weak US Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against administration initiatives, etc.” A third group is not rated at all. US Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico (see October 18, 2001, 2002 and November 14-18, 2005 ) and Kevin Ryan of the Northern District of California (see August 2, 2002) appear on the list as “recommended retaining.” Gonzales has approved the idea of firing some of the US Attorneys.
Denoted for Firing - US Attorneys listed for possible firing are: David York of the Southern District of Alabama; H.E. “Bud” Cummins of the Eastern District of Arkansas (see January 9, 2002 and April or August 2002); Carol Lam of the Southern District of California (see November 8, 2002); Greg Miller of the Northern District of Florida; David Huber of the Western District of Kentucky; Margaret Chiara of the Western District of Michigan (see November 2, 2001); Jim Greenlee of the Northern District of Mississippi; Dunn O. Lampton of the Southern District of Mississippi; Anna Mills S. Wagoner of the Middle District of North Carolina; John McKay of the Western District of Washington state (see October 24, 2001, Late October 2001 - March 2002, and January 4, 2005); Kasey Warner of the Southern District of West Virginia; and Paula Silsby of Maine. Sampson sends a revised listing later this evening with two more names indicated for possible firing: Thomas B. Heffelfinger of Minnesota and Steven Biskupic of the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Sampson says he based his choices on his own personal judgments formed during his work at the White House and the Justice Department, and on input he received from other Justice Department officials. He will later testify that he cannot recall what any specific official told him about any specific US Attorney. He will call this list a “quick and dirty” compilation and a “preliminary list” that would be subject to “further vetting… down the road” from department leaders. [US Department of Justice, 2005 pdf file; US Department of Justice, 2/15/2005; Washington Post, 3/12/2007; US Department of Justice, 3/13/2007 pdf file; US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008; Talking Points Memo, 2011] Days later, a Federalist Society lawyer will email Mary Beth Buchanan, the director of the Executive Office of US Attorneys, with a recommendation for Lam’s replacement (see March 7, 2005).
Later Recollections - In the 2008 investigation of the US Attorney firings by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (see September 29, 2008), Gonzales will tell investigators that he supported the concept of evaluating the US Attorneys’ performance to see “where we could do better.” Gonzales will say that he instructed Sampson to consult with the senior leadership of the Justice Department, obtain a consensus recommendation as to which US Attorneys should be removed, and coordinate with the White House on the process. Gonzales will say that he never discussed with Sampson how to evaluate US Attorneys or what factors to consider when discussing with department leaders which US Attorneys should be removed. Sampson will say that he did not share the list with Gonzales or any other department officials, but will say he believes he briefed Gonzales on it. Gonzales will say he recalls no such briefing, nor does he recall ever seeing the list. Then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and then-Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis will tell OIG investigators about their discussions with Sampson. Comey will recall telling Sampson on February 28, 2005 that he felt Ryan and Lampton belonged in the “weak” category, and will say he may have denoted Heffelfinger and another US Attorney, David O’Meilia, as “weak” performers. Comey will say that he was not aware of Sampson’s work with the White House in compiling a list of US Attorneys to be removed. He will say that he considered his conversation with Sampson “casual” and that Sampson “offhandedly” raised the subject with him. Margolis will recall speaking briefly with Sampson about “weak” performers among the US Attorneys in late 2004 or early 2005, but recall little about the conversation. He will remember that Sampson told him about Miers’s idea of firing all 93 US Attorneys (see November 2004), and agreed with Sampson that such a move would be unwise. Margolis will recall Sampson viewing Miers’s idea as a way to replace some US Attorneys for President Bush’s second term, an idea Margolis will say he endorsed. He was not aware that political considerations may be used to compile a list of potential firings. He will recall looking at a list Sampson had of all 93 Attorneys. He will remember citing Ryan and Lampton as poor performers, as well as Chiara. He will remember saying that eight other US Attorneys might warrant replacement. Sampson will tell OIG investigators that he received no immediate reaction from Miers to the list, and will say he did not remember discussing the basis for his recommendations with her. As for McKay, though Washington state Republicans are sending a steady stream of complaints to the White House concerning McKay’s alleged lack of interest in pursuing voter fraud allegations (see December 2004, Late 2004, Late 2004 or Early 2005, January 4, 2005, and January 4, 2005), Sampson will claim to be unaware of any of them and say he would not have used them as justification to advocate for McKay’s termination. [US Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 9/29/2008]

Entity Tags: Carol C. Lam, Kevin Ryan, Anna Mills S. Wagoner, Margaret M. Chiara, Bush administration (43), Paula Silsby, Steven M. Biskupic, Alberto R. Gonzales, US Department of Justice, Thomas B. Heffelfinger, John L. McKay, Jim Greenlee, Mary Beth Buchanan, Harriet E. Miers, James B. Comey Jr., David C. Iglesias, D. Kyle Sampson, David Huber, David Margolis, Kasey Warner, David York, David O’Meilia, Executive Office for US Attorneys (DOJ), Greg Miller, Dunn O. Lampton, H.E. (“Bud”) Cummins III

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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