3 U.S. Attorneys Were Tried By Border Policing

3 fired U.S. attorneys were tried by border policing

Documents show the Justice Department and prosecutors were often at odds over how to control illegal immigration.

By Richard A. Serrano,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 15, 2007

WASHINGTON As the Justice Department continues to release thousands of e-mails and documents, it is becoming increasingly clear that officials in Washington and top prosecutors in the field were often sharply at odds over one of President Bush's law enforcement priorities: how best to police the Southwest's porous border with Mexico.

Three of the eight U.S. attorneys fired last year were stationed in border-sensitive areas: San Diego, Phoenix and Albuquerque. Although praised in their job evaluations, the three were singled out for termination, partly because they could not slow the tide of illegal immigration and border crimes.

But the documents, released in response to congressional demands, also show that the U.S. attorneys complained Washington was not providing enough resources to fight immigration and drug crimes.

Carol C. Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, said she had to turn a deaf ear to smuggling cases in order to prosecute illegal immigrants accused of more-violent crimes.

She was praised in job evaluations but heavily criticized in e-mails and other documents at Justice Department headquarters.

“Lam is an effective manager and a respected leader,” officials in Washington wrote this year in a summary of her performance. But in Department of Justice documents marked “for internal DOJ use only,” she was criticized for trying only a “fraction” of the immigration cases seen in other border districts.

Paul Charlton, the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, said he had been forced to nearly stop prosecuting marijuana arrests of less than 500 pounds because he didn't have the resources to try the cases.

Although job evaluations complimented his “integrity, professionalism and competence,” Justice Department officials were not happy that he took his complaints about resources to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

“Oh dear,” Natalie Voris, associate counsel in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, reacted in an e-mail.

In New Mexico, U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias was praised in his evaluation as a leader who was “experienced in legal, management and community relations work, and is respected by the judiciary, agencies and staff.”

Privately, Washington complained of his “critically important border district being underserved.”

In congressional testimony this year, neither Lam, Charlton nor Iglesias said they had any inkling that Washington was displeased with their work. They said they were troubled when the administration said they were fired because of poor performances.

The firings have sparked a firestorm in Washington. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is to testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The documents were made public by the Justice Department after congressional Democrats threatened to issue subpoenas and then did so.

They show that Lam came under sharp criticism in recent years from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who complained that not enough was being done to combat routine border offenses.

“Despite high apprehension rates by Border Patrol agents along California's border with Mexico,” Feinstein wrote to Gonzales in June, “prosecutions by the U.S. Attorney's Office Southern District of California appear to lag behind. A concern voiced by Border Patrol agents is that low prosecution rates have a demoralizing effect on the men and women patrolling our nation's borders.”

Justice Department officials told the lawmakers that Lam and her assistant prosecutors were doing all they could to stay ahead of border offenses. Assistant Atty. Gen. William E. Moschella said Lam's district had a “strong record of prosecuting criminal aliens generally and in particular alien smugglers.”

But in internal e-mails, Justice Department officials said the opposite, particularly after Lam was fired and they were scrambling to come up with reasons to justify her termination to congressional Democrats.

“Out of the five Southwest border districts, SD CA is last in terms of total immigration prosecutions,” Daniel Fridman, counsel to the assistant attorney general, wrote in an e-mail to Justice Department officials last month.

“I suspect SD CA is not first or even second in any category smuggling, illegal entry, illegal reentry,” he said.

Fridman also said Lam's assistants were “far less productive than the other border [districts] in immigration cases. Their numbers should be much higher.”

Moschella replied that the department had given Lam a lot of support and her border prosecution figures were still low.

But Lam often thought she did not have enough assistant prosecutors to try border cases.

In an August e-mail to Washington, she described meeting with Issa and Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

She told them it often came down to prosecuting illegal immigrant smugglers or criminals who came to this country with previous arrests in rapes and child molestations.

She said the smugglers would typically get 60 days or maybe a year in jail, whereas the sex offenders could get as much as eight years in prison.

She said committing resources to prosecute the more violent offenders often meant having to simply return smugglers to Mexico, knowing they would probably return.

In Arizona, Washington reacted to a complaint that then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) raised in a July meeting with Bush. Hastert was unhappy that the number of marijuana prosecutions was down, particularly in cases where there was less than 500 pounds of the drug.

“It is true,” Charlton said in an e-mail to Washington. He said budget constraints dictated the change.

“Higher prosecution thresholds are simply going to be a fact of life if the state of budget/resources in the [Southwest border] U.S. attorneys' offices remains what it is now,” he said. “These districts, and perhaps especially Arizona, are absolutely stretched to the limit.”

Justice Department officials forwarded his response to the White House, hoping it would help ease Hastert's concerns.

Rachel Brand, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, went the extra step of telling Charlton that his response was “perfect, perfect, perfect.”