Gov. Janet Napolitano lashed out Wednesday at the Bush administration for firing Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton — especially if it was because he didn’t prosecute some marijuana cases.
The governor, herself a former U.S. attorney in the Clinton administration, acknowledged that people in those positions are political appointees. And Napolitano said Bush certainly was free to put his own choices in those positions in Arizona and across the nation after he took office in 2001.
But Napolitano said everything about this case is “appalling,” from the timing to the politics to the various explanations of why Charlton was forced out.
She noted the release earlier this week of an e-mail reference to complaints by Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who was then the speaker of the U.S. House, who wanted to know why one of Charlton’s assistants in Nogales, Ariz., would not prosecute marijuana possession cases involving less than 500 pounds.
Two months later, Charlton was on a list prepared by Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as someone “we now should consider pushing out.”
Napolitano said it has long been understood that the general policies of what gets prosecuted, set in Washington, are adjusted based on local conditions.
“You just plain get more marijuana cases in Arizona than you do in Nebraska,” she said.
“You adjust so that you handle the biggest cases,” the governor continued. “You get the best sentences and you’re going after what is viewed for that district the most culpable conduct.”
She said that’s the way the system has always worked.
“So I just find the performance of the Department of Justice here unfathomable,” she said. “Just a new low.”
Napolitano said she was familiar with Charlton and his work. She noted he worked for her as an assistant U.S. attorney, though the governor said she has not had an inside look at the office since then.
“From the outside looking in, it looked like he was running a very professional operation,” she said.
Gonzales has defended the firing of Charlton and seven other U.S. attorneys last year.
In a congressional hearing last week, Justice Department officials testified one reason Charlton was fired is because he did not aggressively pursue some death penalty cases and because of his insistence in using taped confessions in some cases.
Napolitano said she believes all that amounts to too much meddling.
“There were calls made about people being too slow on particular type of prosecutions,” she said. “To interfere with the independent prosecutorial judgment of a duly appointed and confirmed U.S. attorney I find appalling.”