Heffelfinger listed to be fired; Coleman calls for AG ouster 5-17-07

WASHINGTON (AP) - The former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Tom Heffelfinger, was on a list compiled by Kyle Sampson of prosecutors to be considered for dismissal, a congressional aide said Thursday, and Sen. Norm Coleman responded by calling on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.

Coleman, R-Minn., cited both the news about Heffelfinger and testimony this week that Gonzales tried to get his predecessor as attorney general, John Ashcroft, to approve Bush's eavesdropping program as Ashcroft lay in intensive care.

“I don't have confidence in Gonzales,” Coleman told reporters on a conference call. “I would hope that the attorney general understands that the department is suffering right now, and he does the right thing, and that is allows the president to provide new leadership.”

Coleman said he found it “disturbing” that the Justice Department had identified Heffelfinger for possible dismissal.

A January 2006 e-mail from Sampson, who was chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the time, to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, lists seven U.S. attorneys that “might be considered for removal and replacement.”

Three names have been redacted, but the congressional aide who saw an unredacted copy told The Associated Press Thursday that Heffelfinger was one of those names redacted. The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. He also declined to identify the other two names that had been redacted.

The four U.S. attorneys whose names were not redacted from the list were ultimately fired.

Heffelfinger announced in February of last year that he would resign, and has maintained that he was not pressured to leave.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., wrote to the Justice Department and the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday asking for an investigation into efforts to remove Heffelfinger. She also called on the department to disclose why Heffelfinger was on a list.

Over a two-year period, the department listed as many as 26 prosecutors for possible dismissal, a senior government official familiar with the process said Thursday. That list was first reported by The Washington Post.

In a telephone interview, Heffelfinger said he wasn't particularly surprised at this point that his name was on a list.

“It is new and somewhat surprising that Kyle Sampson has apparently targeted more than one-quarter of the U.S. attorney community, which had he been successful in doing so, could have been devastating to the effectiveness of the Department of Justice,” he said.

Heffelfinger said again that he had no idea when he resigned that he had been targeted for possible dismissal.

“As late as early fall of '05, I had a private meeting with the attorney general related to Native American issues, and Sampson was present at that meeting,” he said. “Had they had concerns about my performance, (Gonzales) had the opportunity to raise them and didn't. So I could reasonably conclude that he didn't have a problem with my performance.”

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Gonzales said that Heffelfinger “was identified as someone that perhaps there may be issues with,” but added, “I don't know the source, why Mr. Sampson had that particular view.”

Sampson oversaw the review that drove the firings. He resigned in March as a result of the department's botched handling of the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.

Heffelfinger was replaced as U.S. attorney by Rachel Paulose. This year, three lawyers in her office resigned their top management posts, amid concerns of her management style.

In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said that the department would not confirm whether a particular U.S. attorney was on a list.

“These lists, some drafted long before the December resignations, reflect Kyle Sampson's thoughts for discussion during the consultation process,” he said. “Many names on these lists which have been shared with Congress, clearly did not represent the final actions or views of the department's leadership or the attorney general.”

In a telephone interview, Klobuchar said she worked closely with Heffelfinger as Hennepin County attorney, and there was “nothing but trust” from the first day. She said she had no idea why Heffelfinger was on a list but was determined to find out.

“There was never any question about his performance in his job,” she said.

In a Senate speech, Klobuchar reiterated her call for Gonzales to resign, saying the Justice Department has let politics get too close to the legal system.

“The consequences are simply unacceptable,” she said. “Good prosecutors, like Tom Heffelfinger, who by all accounts were just doing their jobs, upholding their oaths, following the principles of their profession, we found out were targeted for firing.” Klobuchar said that Heffelfinger should have never been put on any list.