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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Feinstein still questions U.S. attorney's staff moves

Five months after the sudden dismantling of the public corruption unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, questions are still being raised in Washington, D.C., about the controversial move.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has been exchanging letters with a top Justice Department official over the unit's disbanding, and the subject came up during a congressional oversight hearing late last month.

In March, Los Angeles U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien announced during a closed-door meeting that he was eliminating the Public Corruption and Environmental Crimes section and transferring its 17 lawyers to other units throughout the office.

O'Brien said through a spokesman at the time that he was making the move to enhance the office's ability to prosecute such cases by spreading them among a larger pool of lawyers. But several prosecutors in the disbanded unit said the change was made after an angry O'Brien chastised prosecutors for working too few hours, for filing too few cases and for bad-mouthing him behind his back.

After reading news reports about the shake-up, Feinstein wrote Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey in March saying she had "serious concerns" about the move and questioning whether corruption cases would be "as vigorously pursued" in the absence of a unit dedicated to them.

Feinstein also said she was troubled by reports of "low morale and ill will" in the nation's second-largest U.S. attorney's office, as the result of the disbanding.

The senator asked Mukasey to provide her with the Justice Department's rationale for the move, "including the specific facts, statistics and circumstances that drove this decision." She also asked who was consulted before the disbanding and whether the Justice Department or White House played any role. [Mark Godsey]

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