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Former U.S. attorney Heffelfinger was early target for removal

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Heffelfinger speaks
Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger speaks to the Hennepin County Bar Association last year, shortly after resigning his position.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

(AP) - A report on the controversial firings of appointed federal prosecutors shows that Minnesota's former U.S. Attorney was targeted for possible removal six weeks into President Bush's second term.

Thomas Heffelfinger first made a list of 14 attorneys being considered for dismissal on March 5, 2005.

His name also appeared on a second list assembled by senior Justice Department officials in January 2006. Those on the list were deemed weak.

Gonzales on the hot seat
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "bears primary responsibility" for the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys, according to a Justice Department report out today.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The second list was compiled about two weeks before Heffelfinger said he decided to step down on his own. He didn't officially leave his post until March 2006.

Heffelfinger, who served two stints as the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, wasn't aware until he recently that he was targeted so early.

"I'm proud of the work I did there and I don't really give a darn whether my name was on a list or not," he said in a phone interview Monday.

But he added, "I really am saddened by the negative impact this whole chapter had on the department and its reputation."

The report, which focused mostly on other U.S. attorneys caught up in the removal plan, has led to the appointment of a prosecutor to pursue possible criminal charges.

The report singled out the removal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico -- among 9 prosecutors who were fired -- as the most troubling.

According to the report, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told investigators that Heffelfinger was identified as weak over concerns he "was overly focused on Indian affairs issues."

Heffelfinger acknowledged a passion for Indian country issues and said he was asked by previous Attorney General John Ashcroft to lead a subcommittee on Native American issues.

Upon leaving the Minnesota post, Heffelfinger was replaced by 32-year-old Rachel Paulose, who had been working in Washington. She returned to Justice Department headquarters 18 months later amid instability in the Minnesota office and in the face of intense criticism over her management style.

The 392-page report makes only a passing reference to Paulose. Her name was in the footnotes of the Heffelfinger portion, noting how he recommended elevating an experienced assistant U.S. attorney to replace him.

He said Monday he had recommended a specific replacement; that person he declined to identify was interviewed but passed over when Paulose was chosen, Heffelfinger said.

Currently, the office is led by Frank Magill, who had been an assistant U.S. attorney since 1990.

Heffelfinger has returned to private practice and is known for conducting investigations on behalf of local governments.

Most recently, he was tapped to help with St. Paul's review of law enforcement planning and tactics in response to protests during the Republican National Convention.

The Justice Department investigation harshly criticized Bush administration officials, members of Congress and their aides for the ousters, which were seen by many as politically motivated.

The report singled out the removal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico -- among 9 prosecutors who were fired -- as the most troubling.

Republican political figures in New Mexico, including Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, had complained about Iglesias' handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases, and that led to his firing, the report said.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility director Marshall Jarrett said that a prosecutor was needed because "serious allegations involving potential criminal conduct have not been fully investigated or resolved."

Potential crimes described in their report include lying to investigators, obstruction of justice and wire fraud.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Nora Dannehy, a career prosecutor, to direct the probe.

Investigators said they do not have the complete story of the firing of Iglesias, blaming it on the refusal of Domenici, former White House adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers, former Justice Department official Monica Goodling and other key witnesses still to be interviewed.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales "bears primary responsibility" for the process of firing of the prosecutors and the turmoil that followed, the report said.

He "abdicated" his leadership role and was "remarkably unengaged," it said.

But the report concluded that Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, was the person most responsible for coming up with the plan to fire the prosecutors and said that Sampson's comments to Congress, the White House and others were misleading.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)