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NOW on the News
3.16.07

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Bud Cummins on the U.S. Attorney Firings
3.16.07

» More about this interview

HINOJOSA: The news this week is all about the eight fired U.S. Attorneys. And we're joined by one of those former federal prosecutors, a newsmaker himself, even though he didn't choose to be one. We're speaking with Bud Cummins of Arkansas. Welcome to our program, Bud.

CUMMINS: Thank you, Maria.

HINOJOSA: Bud, your reaction to news that the discussion about the removal of—the federal prosecutors actually was taking place with Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales before the White House had actually admitted that this was taking place. What's your reaction?

CUMMINS: From my perspective, it—it's most important because it is just another piece of evidence that the assertions that my seven colleagues were terminated for performance reasons is an absolute lie. And it is embarrassing to me that for whatever reason, the Attorney General of the United States, the Deputy Attorney General, who was a U.S. Attorney with all eight of us, who—and who should know better—and who absolutely does know better—would for whatever reason still be clinging onto this notion and this suggestion that there were somehow performance issues on the table when these decisions were made. Karl Rove is not a person who is in a position to make a call about performance of a United States Attorney. And so if he—the more he was involved in these decisions, is just stronger evidence that the decisions were made for other reasons. But performance isn't one of 'em. They've slandered these people's professional reputations.

An admission now that performance probably was not a significant factor in these decisions, really would not worsen their position in any measurable way. And it is beyond me why people on my team—these are Republicans, these are people in the Department of Justice who I served with proudly for five years—it is beyond me that they seem to be unable to at least right the wrong that they've committed against these seven people.

HINOJOSA: Bud Cummins, I need you to help us understand what it means when yourself, a Republican, former federal prosecutor, and you are prepared to say flat out that the U.S. Attorney General is a liar.

CUMMINS: What I don't know is exactly how much truth he knows about the lies that he has continued to—perpetuate. He's apparently surrounded himself with a—a lot of little political mischief-makers who probably had no business in these important positions at the Department to begin with. And I think the problem now is—it's hard for me to hold the President of the United States responsible, for instance, for this because it looks to me like all the people that he's getting direct advice from and he's relying on to tell him about what happened here, are the very people who are trying to keep themselves outta trouble for their role in it.

And so I think if he could see beyond their briefings to know that the seven people that I'm talking about—and—and I separate myself because they've admitted the truth in my case, that I asked was to leave so that another person could serve in my place. And they were within their legal discretion to ask me to leave. They asked me to leave. I left. And they're pretty squared away in my case.

But they never admitted whatever the other reasons were in the other seven cases, and tried to just lump them all together as performance-related decisions. And as recently as yesterday, I saw where Karl Rover gave a speech and tried to—ratify that suggestion once more. And—and that's just simply not true. And he knows it. And I'm—Paul McNulty, the Deputy Attorney General, knows it, because he has enough direct experience in this business to look at the list of reasons that—that they have recited to the Congress, and know that on their face they don't hold water.

HINOJOSA: So when Karl Rove in fact says, "Look, the previous Administration fired all the U.S. Attorneys," and he's basically saying, "This is something that's part of the MO of—of—of Presidential Administrations." And he says, "No one made a big political discussion about the firings." So clarify for our audience, what makes this different?

CUMMINS: Well, I want your audience to understand, like you said, I am a—very Rep—Republican person. I agreed to put that aside when I became a U.S. Attorney. And I did very successfully. But I—I have a very deep political background. And I'm very familiar with what a talking point is. And I think you are, too. And probably most of your li—listeners are.

He's reading from the talking points. And—and somebody has decided that if they try to continually talk about Bill Clinton firing 93 U.S. Attorneys, that will somehow you know, muddy this water up to where people can't see anything. The truth is, what they have done here is unprecedented. Presidents are entitled to—to appoint their own U.S. Attorneys. In modern history, Presidents have come into (UNINTEL) office, wiped the slate of 93 U.S. Attorneys clean, appointed their own people.

I can make a good argument why that's—that's the right thing to do. I think it's important to have their own people that are on the same page with their priorities and initiatives. But no President that I'm aware of has ever then reached out later in his term and tried to remove one of his United States Attorneys that he appointed, absent malfeasance. There have been a handful of cases where people have made serious mistakes of some—one kind or another. And they've been asked to leave.

But—and that was my biggest concern. People have asked me you know, "What was your reaction when you got the call?" Well number one, I was surprised, 'cause I didn't think that was really one of the possibilities. Technically, obviously, when you serve at the pleasure of the President, they can call you at any time and ask you to leave. But I—I was unaware of them ever doing that unless you made a mistake.

So my second concern—reaction was concern. Have I made a mistake? And they assured me that I had not. And then my third reaction was, a little bit of personal disappointment because I felt like I had served the President very well, and I was a little disappointed that they would start with me to—you know, an unprecedented move like that. But all those things aside, I knew all—we all knew we served at the pleasure of the President.

I accepted the decision. And I moved on without any complaint, as did all my seven colleagues. And no one spoke out. And you would not have me on the phone here today if they had not gone to Congress later and tried to avoid discussing very embarrassing—apparently very embarrassing things that went into these decisions, by trying to justify them by saying they were performance issues.

Because you're dealing with a group of people with my seven colleagues, that—everybody that knew them, that watched them, that worked with them—knew that they were particularly good United States Attorneys. And they were serving the President loyally, if for no other reason because they were making him look good for putting them there. And they don't deserve to be slandered in this way.

They should be commended for their service. And if the President wants to go in a different direction for any reason, that's his legal right. Now he can defend those decisions to Congress however he wants, but he can't make things up. And that's what's happened here.

HINOJOSA: When you were upset about the fact that you felt you and your colleagues were being slandered, you did start to speak out. And then you got a phone call from a Justice Department official. Who called you? What did they say?

CUMMINS: I had made some comments to—a reporter at the Washington Post who had contacted me. And one point I made to him is that they can replace us for no reason or any reason. But I actually threw in, "or even an idiotic reason." And that was probably a little bit of a slap at 'em. But—my point was that they can do this any time they want. It's not for me to complain about it. That's their discretion.

I also said, though, that if—I said at that time, if, because I wasn't really completely convinced of what was going on at that point, but if they were using this performance issue explanation to cover up some other agenda, that that was wrong and they oughta retract those statements. And that touched a nerve at the Department—in the Department of Management. And—the Chief of Staff of the Deputy Attorney General, Paul McNulty, whose name is Mike Elliston, called me.

It was obviously triggered because of that article. And he said, "If this controversy continues to be stirred up, some of these people are gonna find that—that the Department's gonna be put in a zi—position where they're likely gonna have to roll out more embarrassing information to justify these decisions." And I—I had already heard a briefing of that more damaging information that they had privately briefed the Senate Judiciary Committee on, and so had my colleagues.

And none of us were particular impressed by it. So I didn't really see it as a significant threat. But I did pass that—the fact of the call on to my colleagues. And some of 'em you know, were predictably quite offended.

HINOJOSA: How did you pass the information on to your colleagues? What—what did you do after you got this phone call from Mike Elliston, basically saying, "You know, if you keep talking about this, there may come a point where we're gonna have to—we're gonna have to move this forward a little bit ourselves, too, and start revealing information." I mean, some people might say that that was something of a threat. What did you do when—after that phone call? How did you communicate this to your colleagues?

CUMMINS: When I got the call from Elliston, and I felt like I needed to share it with some of my colleagues, and so I sent an e-mail to all of them. And I tried to describe the call in the e-mail. I really didn't think about it again until the night before our Congressional testimony.

One of my colleagues—was concerned about it and—and had mentioned it to a Senate staffer. And I learned from a reporter the night before, very late the night before the hearings, that I was gonna be asked about that call. And that reporter also shared with me that the Department was completely disavowing that those calls ever took place.

And one person at the Department had said specifically, "If it's Bud Cummins saying it, he's a liar." And I'm probably a lotta things, but I'm not a liar. So that—that ticked me off a little bit. So I got up, put my clothes back on, and went to the basement of the hotel and paid $5 a minute or something to get on their internet. And I found that e-mail. And I printed it out, put it in my pocket. And I was asked about it. And they asked if I had the e-mail, and I did. So that's how all that kinda got into the public record.

HINOJOSA: And has the Justice Department released any kind of information that shows that the ot—the seven other fired U.S. Attorneys did have performance problems, that there was a history of a discussion around these seven—U.S. Attorneys?

CUMMINS: No, Maria. And that's—and that's really, I think, the key point in why I'm so embarrassed that they continue to continue to wanna say that. They—they had Will Moschella go to the House Judiciary Committee the same day we testified there under subpoena. We were under subpoena. He wasn't.

And he recited the supposed reasons in each of those seven cases. And the—the reasons are in some cases laughable. There—there is no substance to really any of it. Additionally, if you look at the e-mails—from Kyle Samson that were released early in the week, there's no discussion of any of those issues there.

And the thing that's most persuasive to me, and maybe you'd had to work in the Department to really understand it, but the people that worked in Main Justice, what we call Main Justice in D.C. don't make a decision about changing a light bulb without writing a 30 page memo. They write memos to their bosses about anything. They always cover themselves.

Will Moschella described a deliberative committee performance review process that had taken place of all the United States Attorneys. If anything resembling the process that he described to Congress had taken place, there would be a stack of memos a mile high. And they have not rolled out so much as a half a page.

Don't you think if they were gonna disclose all those embarrassing e-mails, that by now they would've shared the memo where they analyzed 93 U.S. Attorneys on their performance? The—the—the memo hasn't been produced because it doesn't exist, because such an exercise never took place. But there's no excuse, they could cure this problem today by just conceding that performance was never on the table when they made the decisions about my seven colleagues. And it's outrageous to me that they haven't done that.

HINOJOSA: Do you think that you and your colleagues were targeted because you were not quote unquote "loyal Bushies," that you were too independent, that you were not prepared to follow—a kind of political line on prosecutions that the White House wanted you to follow?

CUMMINS: Well the short answer is, we don't know really. And Kyle Samson's credibility is so low, that trying to draw a conclusion about that from his e-mails is not you know, a real useful exercise. But I'll just tell you this. I've been a Republican all my adult life. I was a Congressional candidate in 1996. I've raised money and campaigned for other Republicans for 30 years.

I was the Bush Cheney Arkansas counsel in 2000. I went to Florida and counted chads during the recount. I was a electoral college elector for Bush Cheney in 2000. And all that happened before I became United States Attorney. I think the fact that my name turned up and other names turned up on the disloyal list had a lot more to do with some political minion at Justice wanting to be a U.S. Attorney and wanting to create a vacancy than it had to do with anybody's loyalty to the President.

HINOJOSA: So when you hear that Democrats and—and even Republican Arlen Specter, are trying to investigate whether or not the—the firings were motivated by a desire to squelch corruptions in—corruption investigations that may have involved Republicans, you say what?

CUMMINS: There was a time when I would say that that was a little bit too conspiratorial or a little too paranoid, and—and that it probably doesn't reach so far to retaliate against somebody that conducted a corruption investigation, or to stop someone from conducting another one, or to punish somebody for not investigating a voter fraud case or a Democrat public corruption case. But at this point, the—the credibility of some of these people involved in this is so low that I wouldn't—you know, I really wouldn't wanna put my credibility on the line and tell you that it—that didn't happen.

It—it—it seems more obvious to me that this had mostly to do some mid level, like I said, political mischief-makers wanting to create some vacancies for themselves and their friends. I think there was some personal animus probably factored into it. Maybe the Deputy Attorney General and other people just kinda didn't like certain people, and would like to see 'em gone.

And I think that at the end of the process, that it's very likely that somebody threw a few names in because some Republican members of Congress or party leaders in their home states were aggravated at 'em for one reason or another. The first two reasons are kinda dumb and petty. But you know, I don't think the history of the world changes because they change out a U.S. Attorney 'cause somebody wanted his job.

The last reason is a lot more serious. Because you know, when I became a U.S. Attorney, I had—I explained to my wife you know, "I have to go where these cases lead me. And they may lead me to take out Republican leaders, you know Republican businessmen in the community. And at the end of the time I'm United States Attorney, if I do this job right, we may not be real popular in the circles we have previously—moved in. And that's just the way it's gonna be." But it never occurred to me that the Department would fail to insulate me from that pressure so I could do my job. And—and this suggestion or this notion that—that prosecutors were out there doing their job by the book, exercising their very important prosecutorial discretion in the right way, and that it somehow aggravated their party leaders at home and they filed a complaint with the White House, and that immediately resulted in their dismissal, is very frightening.

HINOJOSA: So when you hear that Democrats and—and even Republican Arlen Specter, are trying to investigate whether or not the—the firings were motivated by a desire to squelch corruptions in—corruption investigations that may have involved Republicans, you say what?

CUMMINS: Well you know—somebody at the H—in the House Committee asked me, "Are—you know, are you giving up the Republican Party?" And my answer to that—I should have answered it more strongly, I just said no—but you know my answer's really, "Hell, no." And—and this is about weeding about—you know, cleaning your own house. In this instance, this isn't a Republican problem. This is a problem about individuals that have been put into—positions of responsibility that didn't understand the responsibility they were given.

HINOJOSA: Some of the seven other attorneys that were let go have said that they received pressure in certain cases. David Iglesias from New Mexico said he felt, quote unquote, "leaned on" after Senator Dominici called him and asked whether a corruption probe of local Democrats would result in charges by Election Day. We're gonna listen to a little bit of what David Iglesias said in testimony in the Senate earlier this month.


DAVID IGLESIAS: He wanted to—ask me about the corruption matters or the corruption cases that had been widely reported in the local media. And I said, "All right." And he said, "Are these gonna be filed before November?" And I said I didn't think so. And to which he replied, "I'm very sorry to hear that," and then the line went dead.

SEN. SCHUMER: So in other words, he hung up on you?

DAVID IGLESIAS: That's how I took that. Yes, sir.

SEN. SCHUMER: And he didn't say good-bye or anything like that?

DAVID IGLESIAS: No, sir.

SEN. SCHUMER: Now did you take that of a—as a sign of his unhappiness with your decision?

DAVID IGLESIAS: I felt sick afterward. So I felt he was—upset that—at hearing the answer he received.

SEN. SCHUMER: Right. And so is it fair to say that you felt pressured to hurry—subsequent cases and prosecutions as a result of the call?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes, sir, I did. I felt—leaned on. I felt pressured to—get these matters moving.

SEN. SCHUMER: And as you say, it was unusual for you to receive a call from a senator at home while you were the U.S. Attorney.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Unprecedented. It had never happened.

SEN. SCHUMER: Okay, how long after that contact with Senator Dominici were you fired?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Approximately six weeks laters (SIC)—five—five—five week (SIC) later.

HINOJOSA: So what's your reaction to that testimony?

CUMMINS: It's a concern that Senator Dominici would use the bad judgment to make the call. I'm gonna leave it to other people to decide what the call constituted—whether it was just bad judgment or a bad day or something more serious and—you know, a—some kind of a violation of Senate rules. David did the right thing. He sealed it off from the United States Attorney's Office.

He—he—was not persuaded to talk to the Senator about things he shouldn't talk about. He put up a stop sign, even though Senator Dominici was a very influential Republican—I think David said—considered him a mentor. And John McKay did the same thing in Seattle when he got a similar call from a Congressional staff person.

That's what the Attorney General of the United States should have done when political pressure was comin' to the front door of the Department of Justice. But that apparently did not happen. And it didn't happen because the people all around the Attorney General apparently, were too enamored by the activities at the White House.

HINOJOSA: But one of the things—one of the issues that this Administration has apparently wanted to pursue is—pressing cases of voter fraud. Is there really a case for U.S. Attorneys to pursue cases of voter fraud when we have a new report—released by the Project Vote—, which says that there is essentially extremely rare—extremely rare cases of voter fraud in the United States, and that actually this is a myth that promulgated to quote unquote "suppress voter participation." So do we have a case in the United States where voter fraud is something that we should be pursuing? Or is this something that this Administration wants to pursue for political reasons?

CUMMINS: I will tell you that in my experience here in the eastern district of Arkansas, that there is a—a perception in the Republican Party that there is you know, widespread rampant voter fraud going on on election day, that people are voting dead people. Or there's a widespread feeling among the Democrats that reposition are somehow conspiring to violate people's civil rights by keeping them away from the polls.

Occasionally actual complaints came to me or to the FBI along both of those lines. They were always investigated. Always investigated. Very seldom was there any evidence to back them up. People will call you and say, "Everybody over here in Smith, Arkansas," if there is a Smith, Arkansas—forgive me, I—I'm not—I'm not aware of one. I'm—trying to make up a generic name. But, "Everybody over here in Smith, Arkansas, knows that they stole our election over here."

And so you say, "Okay, give me the first witness and we'll interview 'em." "Well, I—I don't know who that would be. But—everybody knows it was stolen." And that's kinda what you run up against. And so I can just tell you that I—I would be shocked if any U.S. Attorney didn't proactively investigate any complaints along either of those lines. It's a high priority for the depar—I mean for the Bureau, too. So the idea that out in the field we are somehow lax on voter fraud investigations is silly. Moreover, we never had any—there was never any communication to us that there was a desire by the Administration to emphasize that more than we were already doing it.

HINOJOSA: I'm wondering about—again in this process of you suddenly being a newsmaker, when you were really behind the scenes just trying to do the job as—as a U.S. Attorney, but in your history as—as a member of the Republican Party—an active member—you supported—the Patriot Act. You were a big supporter of the Patriot Act. You were a member of the Department of Justice's Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council . But in essence, they were able to replace you because of a provision in the Patriot Act. So what are your thoughts on the Patriot Act now?

CUMMINS: To the extent I'm familiar with the Patriot Act, and I don't claim to—I obviously didn't know about this page, 'cause I'd never heard about the change in the interim appointment process in the Patriot Act, and I don't think any of us had—I don't think any of the senators had that voted on it. You know, the events in the last several weeks—not only the you know, frivolous use of the Patriot Act to try and circumvent the Senate in the case of the United States Attorneys, but also the audit about the National Security letters—of the FBI's use of the National Security letters—has probably jeopardized the future of the Patriot Act.

This discredits the whole project. And—and it would be impossible for me if I wasn't one of the eight U.S. Attorneys and I was still in office, if they asked me tomorrow to go back and put my credibility on the line for the Patriot Act in the same way that I had before, it would be impossible for me to do that. So I think it was really reckless of the people that thought this was a cute way to solve a political problem.

HINOJOSA: I—I've heard that perhaps that are some members of your family—your mother—who's a little bit concerned about the fact that you are speaking out. What do you do when your mom says to you, "Son, I'm worried about the fact that you are out there talking and being so public about this"?

CUMMINS: Well my mom's 80 years old. And she's just afraid that her boy's gonna—somebody's gonna paint a target on his back, and—and if I become too much of an annoyance at some—one of these guys—may try to take me out. And frankly, they have already—you know, in—in subtle and not so subtle ways tried to kinda discredit me to the media and say things. That's—that's kinda backed off now.

But you know, they can't hurt me. I mean to—to be honest with you, my—my family and—and the—the peop—my—our neighbors here in Little Rock and the people in Arkansas that know me—their—their opinion's not gonna change no matter what Karl Rove tells his—his reporter friends in Washington, you know? It's—it's painful for me to have to take my own party and the peo—my own former colleagues to task. But they're just simply wrong on this.

There's an issue of right and wrong here that's not political. It's just about people. And—and they really oughta get right on this one issue. It won't solve all their problems. But—it'll solve their problem with me, 'cause they won't ever hear from me again.

HINOJOSA: So what do you think needs to happen right now? Is—I mean are you saying there should be an apology? Are you saying there should be official testimony? Are you saying there should be resignations? What does Bud Cummins want right now?

CUMMINS: They need to admit that the idea of performance is silly and—and embarrassing, and they shoulda never said it to begin with. And they need to apologize to those seven. On the one hand, if you were advising them you might say, "Well, if you do that then the Congress is gonna accuse you of lying to 'em." But I—you know, I got news for 'em.

I've spent a lot of time unfortunately with the—the staffs in the judiciary committees in Congress. Nobody believes 'em anyway. They've got severe credibility problems now with the Congress and with the public. And frankly, they—you know within the United States Attorney community, I mean there's a—there's 93 U.S. Attorneys, but they represent you know, tens of thousands of career prosecutors and paralegals and legal—assistants. And you know, I talk to enough of those people to know that they've got some severe morale and confidence problems among those ranks right now, based on what those people have seen in these e-mails.

HINOJOSA: So you're saying that we have U.S. Attorneys right now that are having morale problems, that there are morale problems in the Justice Department. Just finally Bud, what does this mean to all of us as citizens?

CUMMINS: Well I just think that it's important that every citizen can believe that federal prosecutors are operating in a neutral and non-partisan way. Well many of us were political before we got those jobs. We come to 'em through a fairly political process. But it's very important that we leave the politics out and give up that part of our lives while we serve as federal prosecutors.

Because when you go and indict somebody and threaten to take their liberty away and their property—you know, that's a pretty serious thing. And—and the public has to believe that you're doing it for right reasons and no wrong reasons. Once something like this happens, and you let somehow politics get injected into substantive decisions of the Department, people have a perception that maybe there is a political component to other decisions you're making.

And they really question every decision you make. And it's—and it's already being demonstrated. I—I—you know, I'm—right now talkin' to probably a dozen or two dozen reporters a day. They're asking me questions about things that are so far distant from this, and whether they're related to Karl Rove, or—you know and I don't really have any information on that for 'em. And I really doubt that there are connections to most of these things.

But that's the natural result. Once you lose your credibility, people question every decision you make. So they're asking me whether this incident is related to decisions that have been made in the civil rights division, or the environment division. And that's what people naturally do when they lo—they've lost confidence in your credibility.

And—and—and the Department of Justice frankly lives on its credibility. So it's important that that not happen. It has happened. And it needs to be fixed.

HINOJOSA: Bud Cummin, a former U.S. Attorney from Arkansas who was fired. Thanks so much for joining us on "NOW on the News." And good luck.

CUMMINS: Thank you.

HINOJOSA: To read Bud Cummins e-mail that he sent to the other dismissed federal prosecutors, you can visit our website at www.pbs.org/now. That's www.pbs.org/now. I'm Maria Hinojosa for "NOW on the News," and we'll talk to you again next week.

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