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Government, Politics & Issues

Bond 'pressure' led to 'inappropriate' firing of U.S. attorney, report says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 29, 2008 - An internal Justice Department investigation concluded that the removal of former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves in western Missouri was the "inappropriate" result of political "pressure" from the office of Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., which was upset with Graves' brother, U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo. The report said that Bond's office contacted the White House seeking Todd Graves' removal and then tried to keep its involvement secret. Removal of a U.S. attorney for political reasons, in this way, undermines the Justice Department's independence, it said.

Bond apologized to Graves and to the people of Missouri in a statement in which he said he had not known about his staff's actions. "I recommended Todd for U.S. attorney and I am working for Sam's re-election," he said in a statement. The report on Todd and my staff is extremely troubling to me. I had no knowledge of my staff's action, did not approve it and would not have approved it. Missouri deserves better and I expect better of my staff. To the people of Missouri and to Todd I apologize."

The inspector general's report said that Bond refused a request for an interview and for copies of communications between his office and officials in the Justice Department and White House. Bond's response to investigators was that "to the best of his recollection, he did not communicate with anyone in the Administration concerning Graves' performance at any time during Graves' tenure as U.S. Attorney and that he did not believe he personally had any additional information to contribute."

The conclusion about Graves was part of a 356-page report by the Justice Department's inspector general strongly criticizing the way nine U.S. attorneys were removed during the tenure of former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. Upon release of the report, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey appointed a special counsel to look into possible criminal violations. She is Nora Dannehy, an acting United States attorney in Connecticut who specializes in white-collar and public corruption cases.

The report said its investigation of Graves' dismissal was "hindered" because it was unable to interview Associate White House Counsel Richard Klingler who "was closely involved with Sen. Bond's staff concerning Graves' removal." The White House also barred investigators from obtaining White House documents.

Nevertheless, based on the information it compiled, the report concluded that the likely cause of Graves' dismissal was that "Bond's staff was irate that Graves refused to become involved in a dispute between his brother's staff and Bond's staff.

"We find it extremely troubling that the impetus for Graves' removal as U.S. Attorney appears to have stemmed from U.S. Attorney Graves' decision not to respond to a Bond staff members' demand to get involved in personnel decisions in Representative Sam Graves' congressional office.

"...We believe the way the Department handled Graves' removal was inappropriate. ... Although U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President and can be removed for no reason, the Department should ensure that otherwise effective U.S. Attorneys are not removed because of an improper reason. The evidence indicates that the likely reason for Graves' removal was pressure from the office of Senator Bond. ... To allow members of Congress or their staff to obtain the removal of U.S. Attorneys for political reasons, as apparently occurred here, severely undermines the independence and non-partisan tradition of the Department of Justice."

The inspector general's conclusions are based on the following account: (See NYT story with link to report. )

Bond had sponsored Graves' nomination to the U.S. attorney position in 2001. But by 2004 friction had developed between their offices. Todd Graves told investigators that in the fall of 2004 he got a called from a member of Bond's staff who "angrily insisted that Graves use his influence to persuade his brother to fire his brother's chief of staff." Todd Graves said he refused to get involved, prompting the Bond staffer to tell him "they could no longer protect (his) job."

Graves said he didn't tell his brother or anyone in the Justice Department about the call. He told investigators, "if something like this could cost me a prosecutor's job, they could have it."

By 2005, Bond's former chief legal counsel, Jack Bartling, was contacting the White House seeking Graves' dismissal. Bartling called Associate White House Counsel Grant Dixton, telling him that there "was discord" between the Missouri staffs of Bond and Sam Graves. Rep. Graves' operation "did not run business" the way Bond's office wanted to run business. The report says that "Bond's staff also wanted Todd Graves to try to rein in his brother, but Todd Graves did not do so."

Bartling told investigators that he had not discussed the matter with Bond because because, according to the report, "it would have been beneath Bond to be involved in Graves' removal."

Todd Graves also was facing ethics allegations in 2005. Democrats called for him to be removed because Gov. Matt Blunt had awarded a no-bid contract to his wife to manage a motor vehicle license office. In addition, an anonymous source claimed in a letter that Graves had attended a political fundraiser in violation of the Hatch Act and tipped off his brother to the way his office was handling a case - a tip intended to give the brother the upper hand in soliciting business. Graves eventually was cleared of all of these allegations, but not until after he was dismissed.

On a second or third call to the White House, Bartling raised the issue of Graves' wife's no-bid contract and said he thought it was a conflict of interest.

By December, the complaints from Bond's office to the White House had been kicked to the Justice Department. Bartling, the Bond counsel, discussed the matter with Michael Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Elston had heard about "discord between Bond Republicans and Graves Republicans in Missouri," the report says.

In a Dec 22, 2005, e-mail Bartling told Elston they should talk about a "sensitive issue" involving Graves "that has to be handled the right way." Elston said that the "sensitive issue" that Bartling referred to was "Senator Bond's role (through Bartling) in seeking Graves' removal. ... Bartling wanted Elston's assistance to keep the Senator's name from being linked to Graves' anticipated ouster."

In a telephone conversation around this time, Elston told Bartling about the ethics allegations - information that he "should not have disclosed," according to the inspector general. Bartling asked Elston to "keep his ear to the ground" to make sure the senator's role in the Graves' dismissal was not spread around the department.

A few days later, Graves' name appeared on a January 2006 list of U.S. attorneys who would be asked to resign. Graves had not been on a 2005 list prepared by Kyle Sampson, who became Gonzales' chief of staff. Sampson told the inspector general's office that he couldn't remember why he added Graves to the list. At one point, he suggested that it was because of the ethics allegations, but the inspector general's investigators discounted that explanation. Later Sampson told the inspector general's office that "Bond was not happy with Graves and wanted him out."

Sampson also remembers Monica Goodling coming into his office in January 2006, and saying, "Graves has to go." Goodling, counselor to Gonzales, has given conflicting reasons for Graves' addition to the list, according to the report.

At any rate, after Goodling's order, Graves was told on Jan. 24 that he had to resign. Graves recalled asking a Justice Department official at the time if he had a "senator problem," and concluding from the answer that he did.

Graves called an old friend who had taken over a chief of staff for Bond in Washington. The friend said the Justice Department was saying he was removed because of poor performance - even though his one Justice Department review had been positive.

Bartling, the former Bond counsel who had complained about Graves, then contacted Elston at the Justice Department to ask who had told Graves about Bond's objections. "What happened to Plan B?" Bartling asked. Bartling explained that he thought Plan B was using the ethics allegations as the basis for Graves' dismissal, rather than Bond's complaints.

The report says top Justice Department officials "abdicated their responsibility." Read the Washington Post story. 

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