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Dr. Ensign Treats the Elephant in the Room

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) wrestled with whether he should hold a news conference today on the U.S. attorney firings.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada
Sen. Ensign makes a point during his Tuesday news conference on Capitol Hill (AP Photo).

On the one hand, one of the eight U.S. attorneys who was summarily fired by the Bush administration worked in Nevada, and that angered Ensign -- the GOP's top lawmaker in the state.

On the other hand, Ensign is head of National Republican Senatorial Committee, so speaking out would taint his already battered party. After all, it's incumbent upon Ensign, a veterinarian, to deliver a healthy litter of senatorial pups for his party in the 2008 elections.

In the end, the large animal lover chose to tend to the ailing beast that is the U.S. attorneys debacle. "I had to do what was right," he said.

As he put it, "I am primarily a senator from Nevada."

So he went to the Senate Radio and Television Gallery today to condemn Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others in the Bush administration for the way they "completely mishandled" the firing of Nevada U.S. Attorney Dan Bogden, who Ensign clearly felt got a raw deal.

"I think there are times when you just have to do what is right. It may have negative political consequences -- I understand that. But I felt I had to do what was right."

But maybe Ensign is playing shrewd politics here. A leading GOP senator speaking out against the White House could give Republican senatorial candidates some cover next year when Democrats will almost certainly try to pound them with the attorneys debacle.

Speaking out against the White House on the war is still too risky, but firing eight U.S. attorneys...?

Go to the next page to read the full text of Ensign's remarks today:


ENSIGN: First of all, the reason I called this press conference today is over the U.S. attorney situation.

I have had several conversations, a face-to-face meeting with the attorney general, with Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general, regarding the dismissal. And I want to address specifically the dismissal of Dan Bogden, a U.S. attorney from Nevada.

My concern has been the process.

Dan Bogden had an excellent performance review in 2003, the last one that he had. And my first conversation with Paul McNulty back in December, I had asked specifically, you know, why he was being let go. And they had given me some reasons that sounded fairly legitimate at the time.

And over the next couple of months -- as my conversations back and forth with various people in law enforcement, with the FBI, with sheriffs' departments, with our district attorneys throughout Nevada -- come to find out that everyone in Nevada thought that Dan had done a superb job.

And so, as I continued to pursue this situation in -- especially in this last, about, 10 days -- to try to find out more of how the process went, a couple of things.

One is that I was trying to get the specifics of why he was let go. And to be honest with you, this is what I was told. I was told that there were two areas that they didn't feel that Dan was being aggressive enough. One was on obscenity cases -- adult obscenity cases. And the other was on basically not being aggressive on anti- terrorism-type cases.

So I thought that second point was fairly interesting. I even asked the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, this question. I said, "Did you realize that the Department of Homeland Security had taken Las Vegas off of its 35 top cities last year?" Senator Reed and I had a conversation with Secretary Chertoff to get it back on because they had mistakenly taken it off the list. But the attorney general said it was such a big area and a magnet -- he used the word "magnet" -- for terrorists that it should be a higher priority.

Well, those sound like very legitimate concerns.

So in further discussing this issue with both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, as it turns out, there were a couple of things not take into account. One is, no one ever had a conversation with Dan Bogden, communicated to him in any way that he had set wrong priorities in the office for what the Department of Justice wanted. A complete lack of management oversight had been exhibited by the deputy attorney general, who is the direct supervisor for the U.S. attorneys.

I was flabbergasted when I heard this. I cannot tell you. I'm not a person who raises his voice very often. My staff could hear the frustration that I expressed to Paul McNulty when he first informed me that not a single conversation had been had between him or any of the previous deputy attorney generals with Dan as far as his priorities were concerned.

So in discussing further with the attorney general -- who had come to see me in my office last Friday, and we've even spoke again -- one is that the process needs to change.

ENSIGN: And the attorney general has assured me that they are completely revamping their process on how they review U.S. attorneys.

He said that the process has been in place for decades. I think that's a poor excuse. Whenever you take over something, if something's being done wrong, it's your responsibility to fix it.

They are now -- because, I think, of some of the heightened awareness of what's going on out there and some of the efforts that I have made, they are now changing the process in evaluating their U.S. attorneys. And I think that that is a positive development.

One of the other things that they did not take into consideration with Dan Bogden is I lived in the fastest growing state in 18 out of the last 19 years. Very difficult to get from the Justice Department, you know, resources, well, because they don't want the competition between the various offices.

2003, we had authorized for 82 full-time people in Las Vegas. We had 77 in 2003.

Today, we are authorized for several more full-time people. We now have 71. We have six fewer people. Not a person in the office there has had a raise in the last four years.

I asked the attorney general and Paul McNulty if any of that had been taken into account. None of that had been taken into account.

So I asked the common-sense question: "You have fewer resources; you have to set priorities. Doesn't that make sense that our U.S. attorney set priorities based on the resources that he had?"

The bottom line in all of this is the fire or the ask -- the relieving of duties of Dan Bogden, however you want to describe it, was completely mishandled by the United States attorney general.

So I am pleased that the attorney general has assured me we are getting more resources in the Nevada office for the U.S. attorney, so the next U.S. attorney will have more of the resources that they need.

I am pleased that they are changing the way that U.S. attorneys are being evaluated, so someone will be treated fairly in the future.

And then, lastly, I am calling on the president of the United States and the attorney general to restore Dan Bogden's reputation.

ENSIGN: This is a fine man. This is a man who I believe was worthy of somebody -- his U.S. senator going to bat for. I think he did an outstanding job. I would not hesitate at all to recommend him to be reappointed.

And so while I'm pleased with a couple of the recommendations, I'm still waiting to see whether the White House and the attorney general will restore his reputation.

QUESTION: Should the attorney general step down?

ENSIGN: Mistakes were made and changes need to be made in processes. Those changes are being made. And I believe that if we can come out of this with a better system that America will be better off for that.

And so the attorney general is taking steps. They have admitted the mistake to me that they made as far as the process was concerned. And as long as they are taking those steps and as long as folks follow through with what they said, I think that I will be satisfied.

QUESTION: It sounds as if you believe that the deputy attorney general (OFF-MIKE) in January either accidentally or intentionally mislead.

ENSIGN: The deputy attorney general -- the conversations that I had -- he was either ill-informed of the whole process or intentionally misled, one of the two.


ENSIGN: Once again, I believe strongly that what needs to come out of this is that people need to be treated fairly, wrongs need to be made right, and the process itself needs to be changed so that the American people are served better.

If we have -- if we want good people to become U.S. attorneys, we have to treat them fairly.

All of them -- and they all understand -- and everybody's who's appointed by the White House understands that they serve at the pleasure of the president. But that does not mean a good leader does not just dismiss somebody for no good reason, especially if you haven't done your job in the first place. And I don't feel that the U.S. Attorney General's Office did their job in the first place.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) didn't know what he was doing with Harriet Miers. Now you're saying that, no, he was either ill-informed or that he lied. I mean...

ENSIGN: It could be that whether Sampson is, you know, the one, ultimately, who was behind some of this -- I'm not privy to that.

ENSIGN: I do know that the deputy attorney general in the order, as far as their organizational chart, is the one directly over the U.S. attorneys. And whether somebody else was not serving him properly, it is ultimately his responsibility in direct oversight of the U.S. attorneys. And he's the person that should have been looking at this in the first place.

And that's why some of the corrective action needs to come from his office.

QUESTION: Senator, in your role as chairman of the Senatorial Committee, how worried are you that this whole story is going to taint (OFF-MIKE)?

ENSIGN: Well, first of all, when it comes to a situation like this, I just think that you have to do what's right.

And as a senator from Nevada, I am primarily a senator from Nevada. And I have to look out and do what is right, I think, for my state. But also as a senator with an oversight role, I weighed a lot of those considerations, on whether to even do a press conference today. And ultimately, I came down to, I have to do what I think is right in this situation. That's what we're doing.

QUESTION: Have you reached a conclusion about what the motives might have been, for not only Bogden specifically but the others?

Initially, there were Democrats who said it might have all been to delay or short-circuit the pending investigations of the Republicans. There's one of a prominent Republican in your state.

Do you believe that had anything to do with it?

ENSIGN: I do not. Emphatically, I don't.

I think that the process was so flawed that there may have been political motivations. In other words, they did not think that they were following proper guidances from the Justice Department, from this president's priorities.

And so, in that case, it is a political consideration.

But I do not believe that, for instance, Dan Bogden -- I think I might have been consulted on something like that. I don't believe it had anything to do with the potential current investigations that could be going on in Nevada.


ENSIGN: I really can't comment. I don't know the other U.S. attorneys' cases well enough to really comment on that. I focused on this particular case.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, are you calling on the attorney general and the president to reappoint Dan Bogden?

ENSIGN: I do not think that Dan Bogden would be reappointed as U.S. attorney. But I am calling on them to reestablish his credibility in the legal community by whatever means is necessary.

QUESTION: Senator, how does that work?

ENSIGN: We'll wait to see what the attorney general comes up with. I'm waiting for what the attorney general comes up with for Dan Bogden.

QUESTION: So he's going to give you some recommendations...


ENSIGN: They're going to be speaking, and we will let -- we will see what comes out of the Attorney General's Office. And I'll comment when that comes out.


ENSIGN: It isn't a question of a judge, it is a question of reestablishing whatever -- I don't know that Dan Bogden would ever want to be a judge. I've never even had that conversation with him.

He was a great prosecutor. He's a terrific man, a hardworking guy; showed up 6:30 every day and gave it his all.

QUESTION: Senator, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee both here and in the House are talking about inviting various members of the administration to come and explain what exactly happened, that includes Karl Rove.

Do you think it is imperative for even Karl Rove to come and tell Congress what happened, given what's come out today?

ENSIGN: Listen, I fully expect that the Democrats will continue to make partisan hay out of this, and they're going to do it whatever way that they possibly can to embarrass the president in this situation.

That's not what I'm about today. I'm about trying to right a wrong. I believe a very good man was wronged and a process was flawed, and the process, hopefully, is being fixed, and that we need to reestablish this gentleman's reputation, and that's what I'm about.


ENSIGN: No. I do not like special prosecutors.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) do you continue to have confidence in Attorney General Gonzales' ability to be in charge over this?

ENSIGN: I want to see how the attorney general leads the Justice Department in this time of crisis. He is presented with a very difficult challenge now.

I want to see if he's wiling to make the changes that are necessary at the Department of Justice because things have been handled poorly up to this point.

QUESTION: How concerned are you that the White House and even President Bush (OFF-MIKE)?

ENSIGN: Well, I think it's absolutely proper for the president to be involved if he thinks that his U.S. attorneys are not prosecuting the types of cases that are his priority. So it's absolutely proper for the president to be involved in that.

QUESTION: How concerned are you, though, as chairman of the Senatorial Committee that this is (OFF-MIKE)?

ENSIGN: I stated it before, and I'll restate it: I think there are times where you just have to do what you feel is right, and this is one of those times. It may have negative political consequences. I understand that, from what I'm even doing today. But I felt like I had to do what I felt was right.

QUESTION: I understand that you don't have any of the details, but if you just look at the bigger picture of the seven U.S. attorneys who were (OFF-MIKE), including Bogden, does it trouble you? (OFF- MIKE) a mistake that needs to be righted. Do you attach any particular, I don't know, motive, to the firings (OFF-MIKE)?

ENSIGN: I think that what has happened, and the reason I brought out the process, is whether it would have led to the same conclusion on those others, I'm not sure. In other words, if a better process, if better management, if better oversight would have been in place, it may have led for the rest of those people the same conclusion.

I do not think in Dan Bogden's case it would have led to that.

First of all, they said that of the seven, he was probably the least, you know -- the one, maybe, who was kind of on the bubble. As we're in March Madness time, he was on the bubble. And because they had a bad process, he would never -- I believe, if they would have had the right process, I do not believe that they would have let Dan Bogden go.


ENSIGN: Well, they did call me in December. But the decision had already been made at that point.


ENSIGN: I said it before: I was either intentionally misled or somebody was misinformed and unaware of the complete process. It seems more like the latter.

QUESTION: And will you be supporting Senator Feinstein's bill?

ENSIGN: I don't like Senator Feinstein's bill, but I also do not believe that we should take it out of the hands of the Senate on the confirmation process on U.S. attorneys.

I think that that is our proper role under the Constitution, and I believe that that little portion that was struck in the Patriot Act should be removed.

Thank you all very much.


(Courtesy CQ Transcripts Wire)

By Mary Ann Akers  |  March 13, 2007; 2:30 PM ET
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