By Brooke Masters
The Financial Times UK
Thursday 19 July 2007
Resignations and the ongoing furor over allegedly politicised hiring and firing at the US justice department have left so many top positions vacant that the department is all but operating on autopilot, the Financial Times has learnt.
Six top DoJ officials have quit since February, when the sackings of at least nine US attorneys prompted an outcry in Congress. Outside Washington, 23 of the 93 US attorneys' offices, which investigate and try most cases, are devoid of permanent political leadership.
The remaining top officials, including Alberto Gonzales, attorney-general, are the subject of multiple investigations by Congress and the DoJ's inspector-general.
That has forced lawyers in the field to make decisions with much less input from Washington than in the previous six years, often on contentious topics such as whether to seek the death penalty in states where it is unpopular. The practical result has been to depoliticise many field offices, giving thousands of career DoJ attorneys freedom to resolve cases the way they see fit.
"There's open contempt between the field and main justice [DoJ headquarters]," said one career prosecutor, who like others did not want to be named lest they attract attention from Washington. "The field is fine. We just do what we do. The department [in Washington] is crippled."
Underscoring the turmoil, Mr Gonzales this week named Craig Morford, a career prosecutor serving as temporary US attorney in Tennessee, as acting deputy attorney-general to replace Paul McNulty, who leaves this month. No permanent replacement for the DoJ's number two job has been nominated.
Democrats in Congress, who want Mr Gonzales to resign, decry the situation. "It's clear that the justice department can't function as long as Gonzales is in charge," said Senator Chuck Schumer, who has spearheaded the Democratic investigations of the DoJ. "US attorney vacancies are at an all time high and, on any issue where there's an element of trust, the attorney-general has no credibility."
Most offices are pushing forward without difficulty and have passed some high-profile milestones, including the indictment of a sitting congressman for corruption; the arrest of plotters alleged to be targeting New York's John F. Kennedy airport and the Fort Dix military base; and record settlements for overseas bribery and exporting military technology.
"The chaos to some degree has been good for us," said one senior attorney in the field. "The big city offices are happy to have Washington chase its tail for a while and leave us alone."
Some DoJ attorneys also worry they might face more scepticism from juries because of the repeated congressional hearings into whether DoJ officials improperly took politics into account in hiring and firing.
Washington officials downplayed the importance of the resignations and the decision by William Mercer, US Attorney for Montana, to withdraw his nomination as the DoJ's number three.
The DoJ has a vacancy rate of less than 3 per cent, which covers law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The vast majority of the department's roughly 106,000 employees remain in their positions, carrying out duties every day that are vital to the safety of the nation," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman. The DoJ, he added, is "working diligently to identify nominees".
But Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, pointed out that the White House has submitted nominees for only four of the 23 open US attorney positions. "The current status is unacceptable," he said. The crisis of leadership at the justice department has allowed the White House to play politics with law enforcement."
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