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Fired U.S. Attorneys praised for Indian Country work

It's a big day for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as he goes before the Senate to defend the firings of several federal prosecutors.

Of the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired or asked to leave, five represented states with significant Indian Country. They were: Paul Charlton of Arizona, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Margaret Chiara of Western Michigan, John McKay of Western Washington and Daniel Bogden of Nevada.

Additionally, two more former prosecutors -- Carol Lam and Kevin Ryan -- came from California, a state with more than 100 tribes.

The fired attorneys sat on the Department of Justice's Native American Issues Subcommittee, which essentially consists of all of the districts with Indian Country. The removal of the five represented the loss of about one-fifth of the subcommittee membership.

From 2001 through 2006, the subcommittee chairman was Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney from Michigan. He resigned last March but said he was never asked to leave.

In an interview, Heffelfinger praised his former colleagues. He said they were committed to serving Indian Country on issues as diverse as criminal jurisdiction to methamphetamine abuse.

He particularly noted the achievements of Charlton, whose office prosecuted some high-profile crimes and helped bust a major meth trafficking ring. "There was no one more committed to crime in Indian Country than Paul," Heffelfinger said.

Tribal leaders also praised Charlton for his collaborative approach. When his resignation was announced in December, before the scandal broke, the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona said he respected sovereignty and the federal-trust relationship.

Documents released after the controversy flared indicate Charlton's drive wasn't shared among political appointees in Washington. They questioned his proposal to tape interviews with child abuse and other criminal suspects in Indian Country, and wondered why he always prosecuted marijuana seizures on the Tohono O'odham Nation while letting small cases off the reservation slide.

In New Mexico, Heffelfinger said Iglesias played an important role in a state with nearly two dozen tribes. He said Iglesias helped initiate a unique amnesty program to return stolen artifacts to tribes and took the lead on an important bill to clarify criminal jurisdiction on Pueblo land.

The bill became law with the help of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), a longtime member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. But Domenici's role in pushing Iglesias out of office -- the senior senator was apparently upset with the pace of certain political corruption cases -- has become a centerpiece of the ongoing scandal

Over in Michigan, Chiara took over the subcommittee when Heffelfinger left office and was in charge up until she left in March. In an opinion in Indian Country Today, Matthew L.M. Fletcher of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University said she made great improvements in a state home to more than a dozen tribes.

"Chiara's office's work in developing protocols for domestic violence investigation and prosecution and trainings in full faith and credit, tribal police procedures and Project Safe Neighborhoods, a gun violence reduction project, helped to develop a strong cooperative aspect to Indian country law enforcement," wrote Fletcher, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan.

Despite the seemingly pro-tribal work, Heffelfinger doesn't believe it was the cause for the firings of the five former prosecutors. "The only person who can answer that question is Attorney General Gonzales," he said, referring to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today.

Gonzales took an interest in Indian Country, noted Heffelfinger, who returned to the Best & Flanagan firm in Minneapolis after leaving the administration. Gonzales went the Yakama Nation in Washington in March 2006, a visit that a Yakama leader praised during the recent National Congress of American Indians winter session in DC.

There, he announced a program to help tribal law enforcement address the meth crisis and another initiative to review "cold" cases in Indian Country. On the Yakama Reservation alone, there are more than a dozen cases of suspicious deaths and disappearances of Indian women.

But Gonzales and DOJ have taken flak on Capitol Hill for their stance on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Indian trust litigation. Government attorneys stalled the health bill on the eve of consideration last fall.

Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff, played a role in the firing of former Special Trustee Tom Slonaker in 2002. Sampson has told Congress that Gonzales' testimony on the reasons for the firings of the U.S. Attorneys has been inconsistent.

The number three at DOJ is Bill Mercer, the U.S. Attorney from Montana who sits on the Native issues subcommittee and defended the administration's $7 billion trust settlement offer at a recent Senate hearing. But his two jobs -- one in Washington and one back home -- have drawn complaints from the senior federal judge in the state.

After Chiara left, the Native American Issues Subcommittee was taken over by U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert of Western North Carolina, where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is based. A DOJ spokesperson said Shappert will hold a meeting of the subcommittee next month.

The Senate Judiciary hearing takes place at 9:30am [Link].