Resignations in U.S. attorney's office "troubling"

Federal courthouse
The U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis, which houses the U.S. Attorney's office.
Photo by Mulad, courtesy of Wikipedia

In a written statement, Minnesota's U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose said the community will benefit from having the three attorneys focus on prosecuting high-profile, sophisticated cases in the years to come.

Paulose, who's been reclusive compared to her most recent predecessors, would not comment beyond the press release.

The three attorneys who resigned their management positions are James Lackner, chief of criminal prosecutions; Erika Mozangue, chief of civil prosecutions; and John Marti, first assistant U.S. attorney. Paulose had promoted both Mozangue and Marti to their management positions.

William Mitchell Law Professor John Radsan is a former assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego, and worked at the Department of Justices' Criminal Division.

"The office seems to have had a lot of distractions lately, distractions that have led to ... mistakes. And it's cause for concern."

Radsan says he doesn't know the details of these resignations. He says in general, it's an accepted tradition that new U.S. attorneys may bring in their own people for the top management jobs. But, he adds, this case is unusual.

"We have three people, two of whom were selected by the U.S. attorney, they've decided to go back into the ranks as prosecuting attorneys, not supervisors. That's not common in U.S. attorney's offices around the country," says Radsan.

University of Minnesota law professor Kevin Washburn, who's a former assistant U.S. attorney, says the resignations of the chief positions are troubling.

"They're the brains of the outfit in some respects, because the U.S. attorney may be someone with significant experience or may not," says Washburn. "It's often the career management people who keep the office running and really are the experts. They provide a lot of guidance to whoever the political appointee is."

In less than two weeks, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies before Congress on the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

News of the Minneapolis resignations has rippled nationally, with congressmen trying to link the resignations in Minnesota with the turmoil in the Justice Department.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has called for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign, said the moves in Minnesota were an example of federal prosecutors being "deprofessionalized."

Schumer also questioned how the same lack of confidence is taking its toll in other offices. Before coming to Minnesota, Paulose worked as special counsel to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.

Neither of Minnesota's two U.S. senators, Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, commented on the resignations.

Sources in Minnesota who did not wish to be identified say they don't think the resignations are connected to the turmoil in the U.S. Attorney General's office. They say the resignations were due to conflicts with Paulose's management style.

John Kelly, deputy director of the Justice Department's executive office of U.S Attorneys, visited Minneapolis on Thursday to try to resolve the situation, said two aides in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The prosecutors stepped down after Kelly's visit. The Justice aides said it is not uncommon for the office, which oversees all 94 U.S. attorneys' districts nationwide, to make such visits to handle personnel issues.

Recently, the Minneapolis office erred in a relatively simple prosecution of a felon who possessed a firearm. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. The defendant in that case is now the leading suspect in a homicide case.

Washburn says that case suggests the office isn't sticking to the fundamentals.

"It isn't even getting the simple cases correct at some level, and that's troubling," says Washburn. "The office seems to have had a lot of distractions lately, distractions that have led to that kind of mistake. and it's cause for concern."

Former U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis David Lillehaug would not comment on the resignations. But he would comment on the attorney who has been named the new chief of the criminal division, Jeff Paulsen. Lillehaug called Paulsen a tremendous prosecutor and person of great integrity.

"The circumstances in which he's been promoted are really unfortunate. But if anyone can now do this difficult job in an office that has been shaken, Jeff Paulsen can do it," says Lillehaug.

The U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis said replacements for the other two positions will be named shortly.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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