Wednesday, March 14, 2007 | As a former political appointee, I was intrigued by the current controversy surrounding the December 2006 firings of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration and the subsequent resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff. As I watched the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings investigating the firings, I was struck by the tempest ignited by the incredulous statements of Gonzales, and the transformation of Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, from a pariah to a darling of the local Democratic activist community.

Those of us who understand the administrative processes that govern the appointment and removal of political appointees were mystified by Gonzales’ attempts to explain and justify the firings. By doing what was entirely unnecessary, he demonstrated that he knew about as much about the process as he did about torture and the Geneva Convention. If he did understand, he would never have stated, as he did in January, that he “would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons.”

It’s an incredible statement concerning a process that is, in its essence, political. By making this statement, Gonzales unnecessarily opened a Pandora’s box of partisan scrutiny. As if this were not enough, he then compounded his error by offering a reason for the firings, telling the Judiciary Committee that they were “routine personnel decisions based on evaluations of each prosecutor’s performance.”

The fact of the matter is that all federal attorneys are political appointments. They are a part of the spoils of presidential victory and — like the nearly 4,000 other political appointees — they are installed or removed at the pleasure and discretion of the president. Some are plum jobs, like cabinet positions and ambassadorships, but even the least prominent carry the prestige of being presidential appointments. They are often fitting rewards to major contributors, or a way to settle a political debt.

A case in point is the recent nomination of Sam Fox, a Missouri multimillionaire, to the Belgium ambassadorship. He has no prior diplomatic experience, doesn’t speak the language, and has no connection to the country.

His primary qualifications are that he gave lots of money to Bush and $50,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a political smear machine. This is not to say that there not similar examples in Democratic administrations. The point is that, within the pool of aspirants for a political appointment, even among those well qualified for the jobs, the nod nearly invariably goes to those who have endeared themselves to the president.

That was certainly the case with my appointment, as I had contributed to President Clinton and been active in Democratic politics for years.

The removal of presidential appointees is also a political act, sometimes to pass the plum to another friend or supporter of the president; or to reward a more recent favor. Or, sometimes because the appointee acted with the ultimate political incorrectness: failing to adhere to the agenda of the president that appointed him. Whatever the circumstance for appointment or removal, no explanation is necessary.

The members of Judiciary Committee smelled the blood from Gonzales’ self-inflicted wound and moved in for the kill. All this could have been avoided, if Gonzales had simply fired Lam and her colleagues and then responded to inquiries with a simple statement that the president was grateful for their service and that, in his discretion, he had some other fine individuals he wanted to give the opportunity to serve.

There would have been little, or no, public outcry. As Gonzales found out to his dismay, nonsensical explanations only lead to the kind of hearings that are presently being conducted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and perhaps a request from your president to submit your letter of resignation.

From a local perspective, what is particularly remarkable about the firing of Lam is how it transformed her in the eyes of the local Democratic activists, from a partisan hack intent on destroying good, honest Democratic politicians like Michael Zucchet, Ralph Inzunza and the late Charles Lewis, as well as Democratic political consultant Larry Remer, into a victim of the neoconservative thought police.

Of course, she had already begun that metamorphosis with her prosecution of Randy Cunningham, but it was her firing that made her a darling of the local liberal establishment. They cried foul and demanded that she be afforded due process. Not bad for Lam once a rising star in the Republican universe.

So, as Alberto Gonzales found out, it isn’t always easy to silence a Lam.  

Appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Bill Clinton, Wade Sanders presently practices law in San Diego and can be reached at You can send a letter to the editor here.

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