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Justice Dept. concerns about former U.S. attorney for Minn. 4-26-07

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senior Justice Department officials had raised concerns about Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' one-time chief of staff told congressional investigators.

The ex-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, made the remarks in an interview with the investigators last week, according to a senior congressional judiciary aide who was familiar with the interview. The aide spoke Thursday on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation.

Sampson did not elaborate on what those concerns were, the congressional aide said.

A senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Justice officials had concerns about Heffelfinger early in the review that led to the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

The revelations could add to speculation that Heffelfinger, who resigned his post in February of last year, was on a preliminary list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. Heffelfinger has said he left on his own accord.

The month before his resignation, an e-mail from Sampson to Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, included a list of seven U.S. attorneys who might be considered for removal. Four of those wound up being fired; the names of three others were redacted from the copy of the e-mail provided to Congress, possibly because they had resigned.

Eventually, the Bush administration fired eight U.S. attorneys, provoking a firestorm on Capitol Hill as lawmakers questioned whether the dismissals were politically motivated. Minnesota was pulled into the debate this month when three top lawyers in the U.S. attorney's office resigned their management jobs to return to prosecuting cases. That called into question the management style of Rachel Paulose, who had succeeded Heffelfinger.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Heffelfinger repeated that he left the job on his own, and he said he was not aware of any concerns that senior Justice Department officials had about him.

“And I had regular dealings with senior Justice Department officials on a wide variety of issues, probably most particularly Native American issues,” he said. “If they had any concerns, they had ample opportunity to voice them, and none did.”

“Kyle Sampson is free to say what he wants,” he added, “but my experience with the Department of Justice in the 4 1/2 years I was there was always one in which the department was supportive of the actions I was taking.”

Asked if he was surprised by Sampson's comments, Heffelfinger responded, “I don't know, at this point in this story, nothing surprises me.”

Justice Department officials did not return phone and e-mail messages left Thursday.

Before taking over in Minnesota, Paulose had worked closely with Justice Department leaders now under fire, including a stint as special assistant to Gonzales. Critics have suggested her appointment was an example of political cronyism. Paulose's office declined to comment Thursday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who worked with Heffelfinger when she was Hennepin County attorney, said she couldn't understand why anyone would have any concerns about him.

“I know Tom to have been a top-notch prosecutor,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I had a very good working relationship with him. He always focused on his job, and was not political in any way. He cared about getting things done.”

Klobuchar recently wrote to the Justice Department, urging it to inform Congress if it uncovers any evidence that political pressure played a role in the running of the Minnesota office.

The state's other senator, Republican Norm Coleman, said in a statement: “Mr. Heffelfinger is a first-class prosecutor and did an exemplary job as Minnesota's U.S. attorney. I consider him to be a good friend and an outstanding public servant.”

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee told the Justice Department it wanted to interview Paulose and others as part of its investigation into the U.S. attorney firings. The Justice Department has not yet responded to that request, according to the committee.