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State lawmakers troubled by firings

By Ben Evans
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions of Mobile and Rep. Artur Davis of Birmingham know what it's like to be a nonpartisan federal prosecutor serving at the pleasure of a partisan White House.

Sessions became U.S. attorney for Alabama's Southern District under President Reagan in 1981 and stayed on the job for 12 years. Davis was an assistant U.S. attorney for Alabama's Middle District for four years of Clinton's administration.

While they acknowledge that the appointments are often political, they say politics has no place in the job. And they're both troubled by the Bush Administration's recent firings of eight U.S. attorneys that have sparked growing investigations on Capitol Hill and have left Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at risk of losing his job.

Davis, a Democrat, is calling for Gonzales to resign. Republican Sessions offers tepid support.

"I think he's entitled to an opportunity to defend himself, but there are some problems that he's going to have to explain," Sessions said in an interview.

Sessions and Davis said they never received political pressure as prosecutors and haven't exerted any as lawmakers.

Sessions said he hasn't yet seen direct evidence of such behavior in the recent firings. Davis disagrees.

"I think it's outrageous," Davis said. "I cannot imagine that under Janet Reno, the attorney general or anyone in the Justice Department would make a call to say, 'You need to get off your duff and get this case moving.'

"It appears a number of those calls were made," he said.

The fired prosecutors headed the U.S. attorneys' offices in Albuquerque, N.M.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Las Vegas; Little Rock, Ark.; Phoenix; San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

Justice Department officials initially dismissed Democratic criticism of the firings and testified before Congress that the decisions were based on the job performance, not politics.

But the fired prosecutors balked at the explanation, and most had proof of positive job evaluations. The uproar grew when several of the prosecutors said they received phone calls from Republican lawmakers and felt pressured to investigate more Democrats in politically sensitive cases in the months leading up to elections.

With inquiries mounting on Capitol Hill, the White House released e-mails this week showing that discussions on the firings with the White House began two years ago, with input from political operatives such as Karl Rove and J. Scott Jennings, the White House deputy political director, who discussed the matter using an e-mail address registered to the Republican National Committee.

Amid growing calls for his resignation, Gonzales has acknowledged his department mishandled the dismissals and misled Congress about them. He said he is ultimately to blame for those "mistakes." But he and President Bush have stood by the firings.

Sessions said the president has the absolute right to dismiss prosecutors who veer from White House philosophy or don't share its priorities. But usually such decisions are made quietly, he said, and the politics of a specific case should never be involved.

He also said it was the "wrong thing to do" for a lawmaker to call a prosecutor about a specific case, as several Republicans have acknowledged doing.

Davis said the political interference is unprecedented.

"Even if you move back to the Nixon years ... you can't find any indication that U.S. attorneys were pressured to bring cases against Democrats," he said. "It's bad enough for members of Congress to pick up the phone, but the Department of Justice surely knows better."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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