Mr. Chairman, the story of these U.S. Attorneys and the manner of their dismissals has been troubling since we first learned it, but equally troubling has been the way in which this administration's responses to you and this Committee have seemed to change with every new development.
First, the Justice Department explained its firing of eight well-respected, highly qualified U.S. Attorney by saying it regularly evaluates federal prosecutors, and replaces those who fall short. Having gone through an Evaluation and Review Staff (EARS) evaluation myself as U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, I can confirm from personal experience that these internal reviews are rigorous, comprehensive, and authoritative - but they are not political.
As soon as this Committee requested the EARS evaluations for the ousted U.S. Attorneys, the administration's story changed. Justice claimed that these prosecutors were let go for performance related reasons that were not part of their official evaluations, even though the far-reaching nature of the EARS evaluations makes that unlikely. Then the news leaked - not to us on the Committee, who had asked to see the evaluations, but to the press - that in many cases, these U.S. Attorneys were given laudatory reviews, and the administration's story changed again.
Now Justice says these U.S. Attorney were fired because they did not adhere closely enough to DOJ policy. But several of these prosecutors have since come forward to say they were told they were being let go to make room for others, for whom service as a U.S. Attorney would serve as a reward, or enhance a résumé or a political career. Then we were told that no member of Congress had contacted Justice about the fired U.S. Attorneys. Now we learn this, too, is untrue.
As a federal prosecutor, when I questioned witnesses on the stand, I expected candor. I expect the same from this administration, but candor is not what we have received. Instead, we've gotten a moving target: constantly-shifting excuses and rationalizations from the Justice Department to explain how, and when, and why, this unprecedented mass firing took place.
There is much at stake. The American people expect public servants who administer justice on their behalf to be just that: servants of the public, not of politics. Their confidence, and the integrity of our justice system itself, is aided by the fact that U.S. Attorneys work independently, and follow their own judgment and experience. The administration's attempt to bring its U.S. Attorney corps so roughly to heel to do the bidding of the Justice Department disrupts a healthy balance that has long existed between the administration's national priorities and each individual prosecutor's local needs and imperatives.
But there may also be darker forces at work. A U.S. Attorney's office is no place for politics, and to move or remove U.S. Attorneys to groom future political candidates is a gross misuse of that office and the authority it commands. Moreover, to unceremoniously remove U.S.
Attorneys like Carol Lam, in the midst of high-profile public corruption investigations, sends an ominously chilling message to other prosecutors who would pursue similar cases.
We need to get to the bottom of this, and determine the extent to which political and partisan considerations have infiltrated the Department of Justice and influenced its oversight of U.S. Attorneys' offices.
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, served as U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island from 1994-1998. He is a cosponsor of the Preserving United States Attorney Independence Act of 2007 (S. 214), legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would restore the Senate's role in the confirmation of nominees for U.S. Attorney vacancies.