The U.S. Attorney, the G.O.P. Congressman and the Timely Job Offer
By ADAM COHEN
There is yet another United States attorney whose abrupt departure from office is raising questions: Debra Wong Yang of Los Angeles. Ms. Yang was not fired, as eight other prosecutors were, but she resigned under circumstances that raise serious questions, starting with whether she was pushed out to disrupt her investigation of one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.
If the United States attorney scandal has made one thing clear, it is that the riskiest job in the Bush administration is being a prosecutor investigating a Republican member of Congress. Carol Lam, the United States attorney in San Diego, was fired after she put Randy Cunningham, known as Duke, in prison. Paul Charlton, in Arizona, was dismissed while he was investigating Rick Renzi. Dan Bogden, in Nevada, was fired while he was reportedly investigating Jim Gibbons, a congressman who was elected governor last year.
Ms. Yang was investigating Jerry Lewis, who was chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Ms. Lam and most of the other purged prosecutors were fired on Dec. 7. Ms. Yang, in a fortuitously timed exit, resigned in mid-October.
Ms. Yang says she left for personal reasons, but there is growing evidence that the White House was intent on removing her. Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department staff member in charge of the firings, told investigators last month in still-secret testimony that Harriet Miers, the White House counsel at the time, had asked him more than once about Ms. Yang. He testified, according to Congressional sources, that as late as mid-September, Ms. Miers wanted to know whether Ms. Yang could be made to resign. Mr. Sampson reportedly recalled that Ms. Miers was focused on just two United States attorneys: Ms. Yang and Bud Cummins, the Arkansas prosecutor who was later fired to make room for Tim Griffin, a Republican political operative and Karl Rove protégé.
It is hard to see what put Ms. Yang on the White House list other than her investigation of Mr. Lewis, which threatened to pull in well-connected lobbyists, military contractors and Republican contributors. Ms. Yang, by all accounts, had a strong record. Alberto Gonzales hailed her as “one of the most respected U.S. attorneys in the country.”
The new job that Ms. Yang landed raised more red flags. Press reports say she got a $1.5 million signing bonus to become a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a firm with strong Republican ties. She was hired to be co-leader of the Crisis Management Practice Group with Theodore Olson, who was President Bush’s solicitor general and his Supreme Court lawyer in Bush v. Gore. Gibson, Dunn was defending Mr. Lewis in Ms. Yang’s investigation.
Several issues bear investigating. First, did Ms. Yang know or suspect that she might lose her job, and jump ship to avoid being fired? That is not hard to believe because Ms. Miers and Mr. Sampson were exchanging e-mail about dismissing her in mid-September, and she announced her departure in October. Ms. Yang served on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, which Mr. Gonzales has called “a small group of U.S. attorneys that I consult on policy matters.” That may have put her in a position to be tipped off in advance.
A second possibility is that Gibson, Dunn dangled a rich financial package before Ms. Yang to get her out, and to disrupt the investigation of Mr. Lewis. Ms. Yang, who says she left her job purely for personal reasons, may not have known she was being lured away by people with close ties to Mr. Lewis and the White House, who were hoping to replace her with a more partisan prosecutor.
Another possibility is that the timing of her departure was coincidental. That would make her lucky indeed: after more than 15 years of working for government, she decided to take a private sector job precisely when the White House counsel was apparently trying to fire her.
It is impossible to know how much of a setback Ms. Yang’s departure was to the investigation of Mr. Lewis. It could be that it slowed down after she left. It could also be that it is going forward just as it would have had she stayed. If it has not been affected, that could be because the close attention Congress and the press are paying to United States attorneys has prevented the White House from installing a “loyal Bushie,” in Mr. Sampson’s famous phrase.
United States attorneys serve, as the White House likes to point out, at the pleasure of the president. But if Ms. Yang, or any of the others, was pushed out to prevent justice from being done in a pending criminal matter, it would be a serious misuse of executive authority. It could also be obstruction of justice.
Congress is conducting closed-door interviews with Justice Department officials. That is important, but hardly enough. It is looking more and more as if the United States attorney dismissals were managed out of the White House. The way to put to rest the questions about Ms. Yang’s suspicious departure, and the firings of the other prosecutors, is to require that Ms. Miers, Mr. Rove and other White House officials tell what they know, in public and under oath.