4-2 Its the Performance Stupid
SANTA FE -- Perhaps I missed it, but I haven't heard any of the expert talking heads on TV analyze problems associated with dismissing those U.S. attorneys for performance reasons.
There is no reason a U.S. attorney can't be dismissed for poor performance, but there is a proper way to do it in order to avoid controversy. Apparently none of the attorneys were told they were performing poorly. They all say they received positive job evaluations right up to the time they were dismissed.
It would seem obvious anyone could figure out that telling employees they are doing fine and then firing them for not doing fine reflects more negatively on the boss than the employee.
All but the top government employees at the federal, state and most local government levels are covered by a civil service system that requires evaluations spell out any shortcomings and suggest methods of correcting them.
Top officials are appointed to their jobs by chief executive officers and can be fired as quickly as they were appointed. But those firings usually are accomplished with a velvet hammer that allows the employee to resign for health, personal reasons, to spend more time with family or pursue other interests.
As New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias put it, he knew he was hired for political reasons and he'd have had no complaints about being fired for political reasons because that's part of the game. But to be fired for performance reasons, with no warning is devastating to one's professional career.
Evidently there is some sort of expectation that the Department of Justice will operate independently of the White House, while the remainder of the federal government operates completely under the president's control. While that sounds magnificent in theory, it seems impossible in reality. I find it difficult to be too surprised at what is happening in the current situation.
President Richard Nixon's attorney general played the party line for his president, even when Nixon got in trouble. The only attorney general I can remember who acted somewhat independently was Janet Reno with her appointment of Ken Starr to prosecute President. Bill Clinton.
Maybe there is an argument to be made for changing our constitution to call for an elected U.S. attorney general similar to what New Mexico has. I could go for that, but I feel quite certain it won't happen.
If the current situation continues to drag out, as it most certainly is bound to do, my guess is that the president will prevail unless there is something written hard and fast into some law making the Justice Department different when it comes to the president's right to do what he wants with his appointees.
How could the Justice Department have implemented the firings without stirring up all the controversy? One way would have been to fire one at a time. Each attorney would then have had to stand alone, which likely none would have wanted to do.
Another solution would have been to not rehire them at the beginning of President Bush's second administration two years ago. That is a standard time to make changes. Eight attorneys could have been canned at that time with little fuss.
But word has it that some in the White House wanted to dump all 93 U.S. attorneys at once. At least someone nixed that bad idea. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales takes credit for that decision. But it seems to have been his last sensible decision on the matter.
Even claiming political reasons for firing eight attorneys in the middle of the president's term would have been better that saying that seven of them were for performance reasons. It was the word "performance" that got the former U.S. attorneys to talking publicly, attempting to salvage their law careers.
Any number of artfully worded reasons between "politics" and "performance" would have kept this gang that couldn't shoot straight off the hook.