Bush signs bill to preserve US Attorneys' 'independence'
Late on Thursday, President George W. Bush signed into law the "Preserving United States Attorney Independence Act of 2007." The bill, which was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), removed a controversial provision at the heart of the current US Attorneys controversy that allowed the Attorney General to appoint US Attorneys on an interim basis for an indefinite period of time. Critics said the measure allowed the Justice Department to do an 'end-run' around Senate confirmation of controversial picks for the powerful prosecutor posts.
Earlier in the day, as RAW STORY reported, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had once again used the authority that the President later overturned with his signature to grant an interim appointment to a US Attorney.
RAW STORY later learned that George Cardona, the Acting US Attorney for the Central District of California, was the US Attorney in question. But later communications with Cardona's office added a layer of confusion to the story, as the US Attorney in question was not aware of any change to his appointment status.
"We have not been informed about the appointment of an interim US Attorney," said Cardona spokesman Thom Mrozek. "In the meantime, Cardona remains the acting US attorney."
Cardona, the First Assistant US Attorney to previous Bush selection Debra Wong Yang, was appointed using the authorities granted under the Vacancies Reform Act, which gave him 210 days to serve without confirmation by the Senate. News reports show that Cardona was appointed November 20, 2006. Under the 210 day limit, Cardona would have reached his 206th day of service on Wednesday, when Senator Leahy was reportedly informed of the interim appointment.
RAW STORY was unable to reach the Department of Justice to clarify the nature of its notification to the Judiciary Committee.
But a Senate Democratic staffer made clear on Thursday that any indefinite, interim appointment under the PATRIOT Act would be canceled out by the Feinstein bill entering into force. Feinstein's bill puts a 120-day limit on any interim US Attorney appointments.
At the same time, if the Justice Department has already or plans soon to grant Cardona an interim appointment, it could run afoul of the intent of the bill just signed by the President.
"It is not our intent to allow such an abuse by having the Vacancies Act provisions and those of S. 214 used in sequence," said Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor on March 20. "We do not intend for the Attorney General to use such a misguided approach and seek to install a choice for 330 days without the advice and consent of the Senate."
President Bush made the announcement to little fanfare on the White House website late in the day on Thursday. So far, there is no 'signing statement' associated with the bill. The bill passed the Senate by a 94-2 margin on March 20, and also cleared the House of Representatives by a 306-114 vote on May 22.