A History of Attorneys General in Hot Water
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is not the first attorney general to find himself in hot water. He's not even the first to find himself in hot water for firing U.S. attorneys allegedly for political reasons.
Experts say the job's controversy-plagued history can be partly blamed on its seemingly contradictory requirementsto both aggressively pursue the priorities of the president and objectively prosecute lawbreakers without regard for their political ideology.
"It's a very delicate situation," says Daniel Meador, a retired University of Virginia law professor and former assistant attorney general during the Carter administration. "The attorney general is operating always at an intersection of law and politics."
That intersection has seen plenty of fender benders over the years and even a few full-blown pileups. Here are some of the recent events that put attorneys general under fire:
Janet Reno (Clinton) Reno faced calls for her resignation, and offered to step down, immediately after the disastrous siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, on April 13, 1993, that left dead more than 80 members of the cult, including young children. That pressure was renewed in 1999, when evidence emerged that FBI agents used incendiary gas canisters during the raid, which Reno had consistently denied (and which she later claimed to be unaware of). Critics blame Reno's management style for some of the Justice Department's controversies during her tenure. "She ran the department in a very hands-off way," says Reagan-era Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Carvin, now a lawyer in private practice. "[Subordinate officials] tended to drift and get caught up in various controversies."
Edwin Meese (Reagan) Meese survived his role in the Iran-contra scandal but was forced to resign in 1988 after an independent counsel investigation suggested that he had violated tax and ethics laws. He was accused of giving preferential treatment to Wedtech, a military contractor. Though Meese himself was never prosecuted, several of his associates were convicted of racketeering and fraud charges for their roles in the scandal.
Griffin Bell (Carter) In a case with remarkable parallels to Gonzales's current woes, Bell took fire from Republicans over the firing of Philadelphia U.S. Attorney David Marston, who had prosecuted Democratic politicians for corruption. Marston fought back, declaring that his dismissal was politically motivated. Carter initially denied that he had been familiar with the case but eventually conceded that Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Joshua Eilberg, who was later convicted of corruption charges, had called him and urged him to "expedite" the dismissal. No action was taken against Bell, but Carter's campaign pledge not to play politics with Justice Department officials was tarnished.
Richard Kleindienst (Nixon) Taking office less than a week before the Watergate break-in and leaving within a year, Kleindienst served a term was dominated by the scandal that would eventually doom the man who appointed him. He resigned in April 1973, as criminal charges against other top White House officials became likely, but never forgave Nixon for announcing his resignation the same day as those of White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and adviser John Ehrlichman, who both later served prison terms for covering up the break-in. Kleindienst himself pleaded guilty in 1974 to a misdemeanor for failing to testify fully during his confirmation hearing about the ITT scandal, which involved allegations that the telephone company had gotten favorable treatment. He served no prison time.
John Mitchell (Nixon) Until his death in 1988, Mitchell steadfastly denied that he had ever approved the plan by G. Gordon Liddy to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. But that was disputed by several other White House officials, and Mitchell's role in covering up the scandal would eventually make him the only attorney general in history to serve a prison sentence. Starting in June 1977, he served 19 months for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, giving false testimony to a grand jury, and perjury. Mitchell's unswerving loyalty to Nixon held during his trial, in which he refused to let his defense lawyers lay blame on the president.