Multiple Choice: Lam Was Fired For A) Immigration or B) Cunningham

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The convergence of two unrelated events in Southern California last May has left a lot of unanswered questions in the investigation of why U.S. Attorney Carol Lam ultimately lost her job seven months later.

In an E-mail from Kyle Sampson, then the chief of staff to the attorney general, to White House deputy counsel William Kelley on May 11, 2006, Sampson cryptically referred to "the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires."

The day before, Lam had contacted the Justice Department to inform it of search warrants issued for Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who had just resigned as No. 3 official at the CIA and was eventually indicted in connection with a bribery scandal that put former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham behind bars. Two days later, the FBI raided Foggo's home and former office.

Separately, President Bush was preparing to dispatch members of the National Guard to the Mexican border to aid overworked Border Patrol officers in stemming illegal entry into the country. He announced the plan in a public address on May 15, 2006.

In the wake of the furor of the fired U.S. attorneys, the Justice Department has cited Lam's declining prosecution of immigration cases as the reason she was let go. While it's hard to believe that Lam's prosecution of Cunningham and Foggo was not on Sampson's mind when he wrote that E-mail, there were at least other reasons that the Justice Department had to be keeping an eye on Southern California.

There may be some truth to these accusations, regardless of whether they were really behind her firing. Between fiscal 2003--Lam's first full year on the job--and fiscal 2006, the number of immigration cases she prosecuted dropped from 2,662 to 1,715, according to data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Weapons cases were extraordinarily low: 17 in fiscal 2003, 15 in 2004, eight in 2005, and 16 in 2006.

At the same time, however, the median sentence doled out to those who were convicted rose, reflecting a shift of priorities toward more egregious offenders. The median sentence in 2003 was 15 months but jumped to 24 months by 2005; it was 18 months in 2006.

This was the justification provided to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein when she contacted the Justice Department asking for information on Lam's immigration record in June 2006. Two months later, an assistant attorney general responded that "the immigration prosecution philosophy [in Southern California] focuses on deterrence by directing its resources and efforts against the worst immigration offenders and by bringing felony cases against such defendants that will result in longer sentences."

It's a question of which way you slice the numbers, and who you believe the U.S. attorney should be targeting in such cases.

Etc.: Note to Gonzales about CIA Preceded Lam's Firing, on USNews.com

--Chris Wilson