Fired U.S. attorneys: Justice 'declined' under Gonzales
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Three former U.S. Attorneys fired by the U.S. Justice Department last December told tribal leaders attending the National Congress of American Indians convention that the potential for justice in Indian country had declined under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
''Alberto Gonzales doesn't know anything about crime in Indian country,'' Paul Charlton, the former U.S. Attorney from Arizona, told leaders. ''And the Justice Department doesn't care.''
Speaking on the same day in which Gonzales survived a no confidence vote in the U.S. Senate, Charlton, former U.S. Attorney from the Western District of Michigan Margaret Chiara and former U.S. Attorney for Nevada Dan Bogden stopped short of saying that they were fired because of their attention to crime on reservation land.
Yet five of the eight fired attorneys, including Charlton, Chiara and Bogden, were appointed by President Bush to the U.S. Attorneys' Subcommittee on Native American Issues in 2001. Another attorney, Tom Heffelfinger, former U.S. Attorney from Minnesota, was chairman of the subcommittee for five years until he quit last year. Only later did he learn that he was on the list slated for firing.
Heffelfinger learned more about his firing in late May when Monica M. Goodling, the department's former liaison to the White House, told the House Judiciary Committee that Heffelfinger had been criticized for ''spending an excessive amount of time'' on Native issues.
Officially, the firings were over performance problems, an assertion that has been largely discredited in media reports and in Congress. Still, Chiara said, in her first public appearance since she was forced from office, ''It has been a time of public humiliation and negative notoriety. We really want you to understand, it's Indian country that brought us back into the public forum.''
The attorneys urged tribal leaders to take concerns about lack of funding to support law enforcement, prosecution and crime prevention in Indian country, without which, the attorneys said, even the best efforts were set up to fail.
NCAI leaders were drafting an emergency resolution June 12 to raise the issues of funding and of federal inattention to Indian country under Gonzales, said John Dossett, NCAI general counsel. The resolution was expected to go to delegates for a vote June 13.
The attorneys said they've watched a decline in commitment to prosecutions in Indian country since Gonzales was appointed in 2005. The decline was startling after the support his predecessors gave Indian issues.
Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, Native issues were a priority, Bogden said. In Janet Reno's tenure, the chairman of the subcommittee had open-door access to Reno, Paul Charlton said. Yet under Gonzales, the Native American subcommittee lost its seat in the monthly meeting of other subcommittee leaders with the attorney general.
''Even though we asked, we were not included,'' said Chiara, who was chairman of the subcommittee when she left office. ''Almost all other subcommittees had access. It would appear that Native American issues were not viewed as a priority for the leadership.''
The subcommittee worked with tribes and victim advocates on addressing issues such as violence against women, homeland security and gangs on Indian lands.
In 2003, the subcommittee released its plan to fight sexual violence on reservations, which identified many of the same objectives set forth in Amnesty International's 2007 report ''Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.'' But the Department of Justice shelved the recommendations, the attorneys said.
Yet working in her own district, Chiara put in place measures, including dedicating two full-time staff members that would increase prosecutions from the 11 reservations in western Michigan by 85 percent in two years. Bogden, who had worked 11 years as an assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting many crimes on Indian land before becoming U.S. Attorney, increased prosecutions from Nevada reservation crimes by 50 percent, even as budget cuts eroded his office.
Neither Chiara nor Bogden was told a reason for their firing.
But Charlton was told in his December phone call from the Justice Department that he was being forced to resign because of a stand he had taken on behalf of tribes in his district.
One involved the law enforcement practice of taping confessions, a practice which the FBI discourages. Charlton said the FBI's stand hindered prosecution of violent crimes on reservation.
Charlton also had taken a stand against the death penalty, saying that he wouldn't seek it in cases involving some of the 20 out of 21 tribes in Arizona that oppose it. He said this stand was mentioned to him as one of the reasons for his dismissal.
Since the firings, some of the districts have experienced a shift in staffing and resources away from justice in Indian country, the attorneys said. But Chiara said neither the Department of Justice nor U.S. Attorneys' offices have any excuses for backtracking on justice on tribal lands.
''The Department of Justice has a legal and ethical obligation to prosecute crime in Indian country,'' Chiara said. ''U.S. Attorneys have a legal and moral obligation as the chief law enforcement officers in their regions to prosecute crimes in Indian country.''