Long before former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam drew public attention for leading the corruption case against former Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, she was being noticed by political advisers at the Justice Department — and shortlisted for termination.
In e-mails dating back more than two years and released Tuesday, Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson recommended to White House counsel Harriet Miers that Lam be removed, striking her name along with those of at least three other U.S. attorneys he considered "ineffectual managers and prosecutors" who "chafed against Administration initiatives."
Sampson did not specify what initiatives he was referring to.
Wednesday, appearing on CBS' The Early Show, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales praised Lam's efforts, but said Lam focused too much on public corruption cases.
Controversy surrounding Lam's firing, along with seven other U.S. attorneys, has renewed calls for Gonzales' resignation,
"We advised Ms. Lam of these other priorities — that she needed to focus on other issues as well. A U.S. attorney can't just focus on one particular problem," Gonzales said. "A U.S. Attorney has to focus on all the needs of the community."
In March 2005, when Sampson sent his list to Miers, Lam — a longtime federal prosecutor whose specialty is white-collar crime and health care fraud — was in the midst of prosecuting Tenet Healthcare Corp. on charges that one of its hospitals paid illegal kickbacks to doctors. That case ended in a mistrial, and Tenet later agreed to settle with the government.
Lam was also overseeing cases against two San Diego councilmen accused of accepting bribes from a Las Vegas strip club owner; both cases resulted in convictions, though one was overturned.
In July 2005, her office began investigating Cunningham and his associates on bribery allegations. Cunningham pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March 2006 to more than eight years in federal prison for taking more than $2.4 million from defense contractors during his tenure on the powerful House appropriations and intelligence committees.
Last month, two days before Lam left her post, her office obtained indictments against one of the defense contractors and a former top CIA official accused of fraud in the expanding corruption investigation.
Lam, who was appointed in 2002, also tightened prosecution guidelines at the border, raising the violation requirements in an effort to manage the flood of immigration cases referred to her office, which covers the entire California border with Mexico.
Lam, who is now working as a lawyer for San Diego-based wireless technology company Qualcomm Inc., declined to comment Tuesday on the circumstances of her ouster.
In testimony March 7 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lam said she had never been told the reason she was told to resign last December.
"Neither before, during, nor after the call of December 7th have I ever been provided directly by the department with a reason," she said.
Later e-mails between Sampson and Bill Mercer, the associate attorney general, indicated concern over the drop in border prosecutions in San Diego.
"Has ODAG (Office of the Deputy Attorney General) ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement? Has anyone?" Mercer wrote Sampson in May 2006.
In a speech last Friday at an event hosted by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, White House adviser Karl Rove said Lam was removed for failing to file immigration cases.
William Moschella, an associate deputy attorney general, testified before the House Judiciary Committee that Lam was let go because her prosecution of gun crimes and immigration violations "just didn't stack up."
That same day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who wrote a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last June questioning border prosecution guidelines in Lam's district, quoted from Moschella's Aug. 23 reply, in which he described Lam's immigration smuggling caseload as rising "favorably" in 2006.