Heffelfinger lashes out at Justice Department

Heffelfinger speaks
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger speaks to the Hennepin County Bar Association Thursday.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

About 200 lawyers gathered on the 50th floor of the IDS tower as Tom Heffelfinger entered the room. Throngs of press and well-wishers descended on him, and those farther away stopped chattering shop talk to find out what was happening.

This same man who had left the public spotlight for the quiet life of private practice soon discovered the spotlight had found him again.

Tom Heffelfinger
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger has been vocal in his criticism of the U.S. Justice Department's firing of U.S. attorneys across the country, saying the DOJ is broken.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

"It's been kind of a strange day. That's one of the more unusual ways I've entered a room in my life," Heffelfinger said.

Heffelfinger's appearance as keynote speaker for the Hennepin County Bar normally would have been a short speech with little fanfare. This one was different.

On Wednesday, a key Justice Department official confirmed that Heffelfinger was on the department's list of 30 U.S. attorneys for replacement, if he had not resigned on his own.

Monica Goodling testified before Congress that Justice Department officials were concerned Heffelfinger was spending too much time on issues related to American Indians. Heffelfinger looked incensed.

"This list, which is the brainchild of people within the department who are avoiding responsibility for it, was developed after the Red Lake High School shooting. A federal crime of which I was quite visibly responsible," Heffelfinger said.

"It's clear that these people didn't even know the [U.S. attorneys] whom they were considering replacing. They didn't know their backgrounds, they didn't know their resources, they didn't know their strengths and they didn't know their weaknesses."

He took issue with Goodling's assertion that Native American problems were not the federal government's problems.

"Native Americans are the most heavily victimized set of people in our country, and most particularly Native American women and children," Heffelfinger said. "In the majority of the nation's reservations, the responsibility of prosecution of these major crimes, and investigation of them, falls on federal authorities. Federal responsibility cannot be delegated."

Heffelfinger and some other U.S. attorneys say the Department of Justice has lost professionalism and credibility. While U.S. attorneys work independently around the nation, they are proud to work together as part of the Department of Justice. But that's changed, and Heffelfinger's comments about them showed a distance.

"It's clear that these people didn't even know the people whom they were considering replacing," Heffelfinger said. "They didn't know their United States attorneys. They didn't know their backgrounds, they didn't know their resources, they didn't know their strengths and they didn't know their weaknesses."

To prove that, Heffelfinger read a memo written by Kyle Sampson, one of the key figures in the Justice Department's purging of U.S. attorneys.

"Moreover, McKay, Heffelfinger and Iglesius, etc. had no federal prosecution experience when they took the job," he read to the audience, referring to himself and two other U.S. attorneys who were fired.

Heffelfinger had served as U.S. attorney in the early 1990s. When the laughs subsided, he said there's a serious problem in the Justice Department.

"Something is fundamentally broken within the Department of Justice, that goes to the core value of delivering services in all 93 federal judicial districts," Heffelfinger said.

Monica Goodling had also testified that the department chose Heffelfinger's successor, Rachel Paulose, in part based on Paulose's politics. Paulose has faced a barrage of criticism particularly after her three top aides quit their supervisory jobs.

Heffelfinger would not comment on his successor's credentials or office management, but did say that when he left the job, the office was running very well.

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