No Comment — August 4, 2009, 10:59 am

Rove’s Mississippi Mud

The firing of nine U.S. attorneys at the end of 2006 provoked a special congressional probe, an internal investigation by the Department of Justice, and an investigation by a special prosecutor. These investigations have focused closely on the U.S. attorneys who were fired. But another aspect of this tale remains unexplored. A number of U.S. attorneys were scheduled to be axed, but survived when the White House intervened. How did these U.S. attorneys keep their jobs?

One of these “Lazarus candidates” was the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, Dunnica Ott Lampton. The tangled tale in the Justice Department’s internal report sheds some light on why he was retained, but it also raises some questions. Numbers in brackets in what follows refer to page numbers in the report.

When D. Kyle Sampson, Alberto Gonzales’s deputy chief of staff, requested names of the “weakest” U.S. Attorneys that needed to be replaced, Lampton’s name was one of two immediately cited by the senior professional staff. Deputy Attorney General James Comey and Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis told Sampson that Lampton was “weak” and an “ineffective prosecutor.” Moreover, Lampton was seen as having “chafed against Administration initiatives” [18]. On March 2, 2005, Kyle Sampson gave the termination list, including Lampton’s name, to White House Counsel Harriet Miers. The initial request for the list came from Karl Rove together with Miers, and White House email traffic apparently shows Miers consulting closely with Rove throughout this process [16].

Comey later told OPR/OIG investigators that he was troubled by Lampton’s “judgment and behavior” connected with a case Comey managed during his tenure as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan [21]. While Comey gave no further details, a search of reported cases discloses one significant matter in which both the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office and the Jackson office were involved: the probe into accounting fraud allegations surrounding WorldCom. Lampton was taken off the matter after it came to light that he had owned stock in WorldCom and had received campaign contributions for his two failed Congressional campaigns from officers and employees of WorldCom. Lampton had failed to disclose these connections when the matter began.

Margolis, a thirty-two year employee of the Department who has been given the nickname “Yoda” by coworkers, recalls that he met with Sampson in late 2004 or early 2005 to discuss the possible removal of U.S. attorneys. Margolis gave a “firm” recommendation that Lampton be removed [22], stating that he “questioned Lampton’s judgment after learning about several matters Lampton was handling” [316].

While the report contains no further detail, Margolis regularly served as arbiter for cases in which conflict of interest claims were raised against U.S. attorneys. There were two cases in which conflict allegations were raised against Lampton and which likely came to Margolis’s attention. The first was the WorldCom case just noted, and the second was the prosecution of Mississippi attorney Paul Minor, and a number of judges who had received campaign contributions and campaign finance support from him. Minor had secured a substantial judgment against a Lampton family business, and Lampton had been deeply involved in one of the underlying judicial elections–for the defeated Republican candidate. Lampton was removed entirely from the first case; in the second, prosecutors from Main Justice were sent to manage the case, and Lampton’s role became less visible.

On January 1, 2006, Sampson re-drafted the termination list, still including Lampton’s name, and circulated it to Monica Goodling [27, 28]. Goodling insisted that Lampton be retained “based upon his performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina” [27]. Sampson says he did as Goodling asked, striking Lampton’s name off the list, and forwarded it to Miers at the White House on January 9, 2006.

But when questioned by investigators, Sampson acknowledged that performance criteria were not “the decisive factor in the removal process.” The key consideration was whether local Republican officials were satisfied with the U.S. attorney’s performance [330]. This lines up perfectly with Karl Rove’s statements on Thursday to the Washington Post and New York Times. Working hard to minimize his own role, Rove nevertheless admitted that he collected comments from local Republican officials on the performance of the U.S. attorneys and funneled that information on. While most of the internal White House correspondence continues to be confidential, the documents which have surfaced so far point to electoral politics as the key factor. Sampson and Goodling have both also testified that they played a role of go-between for Rove and Gonzales.

So why was Lampton dropped from the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired when the professional staff considered him one of the two worst performers in the country? Perhaps the answer is the one that Goodling gave—that he did good work on Hurricane Katrina. The problem with this is that he didn’t. The only news accounts linking Lampton in any way to Hurricane Katrina relate to his prosecution of a local sheriff who commandeered a shipment of ice for his community. I gave a full account of this saga, which spawned songs and local press commentary—all of it highly unflattering to Lampton—in “Ice Man Cometh.” In fact, the Hurricane Katrina matter was yet another conflict embarrassment for Lampton—he failed to disclose his connection to the complainant, and again wound up being taken off the matter by Main Justice.

Perhaps the rationale furnished by Sampson and Rove is more enlightening. Lampton was handling one case that was a matter of intense concern to Republican Party leaders in Mississippi as well as to Karl Rove in the White House: the Minor prosecution. That prosecution was used heavily by the Republicans in their efforts to portray their Democratic opponents as “corrupt.” As I noted previously, it formed the core of a Republican advertising campaign, coordinated perfectly with Lampton’s prosecution efforts. It sent a message to campaign contributors in Mississippi that they donated to the Democrats at their great peril. The coffers of the state Democratic Party quickly went dry, helping to ensure a series of Republican election triumphs.

But Lampton’s efforts failed in the courtroom. The trial resulted in the outright acquittal of one defendant and a hung jury on the balance. That was in August 2005, as Lampton’s name appeared on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. In December 2005, however, he secured a new indictment of Minor and the judges. A few weeks later, Lampton’s name was removed from the firing list.

The convictions of Paul Minor and his codefendants are now on appeal, with a ruling past due. The appeals court judges hearing the case have requested an almost unprecedented second round of post-argument briefing–pressing the Justice Department to explain its decision to reindict following the initial acquittal and hung jury. They are focused on just the act that may have saved Lampton’s career as a U.S. attorney, and they are suggesting that it looks improper. Any lawyer knows that projecting a ruling on the basis of a judge’s questions is problematic, but at this point things don’t look good for the Department of Justice.

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