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Heffelfinger targeted by DOJ for focus on Indian issues

Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C., were concerned that former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger was spending too much time on Indian issues, a former Bush administration aide said on Wednesday.

Heffelfinger wasn't one of the prosecutors who was purged late last year in what has become a political scandal. But his name appeared on an early list of possible targets and Monica Goodling, a former aide to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, explained why.

"There were some concerns that he spent an extraordinary amount of time as the leader of the Native American Subcommittee," Goodling, who resigned as the scandal broke, told the House Judiciary Committee.

Goodling didn't identify who was concerned about Heffelfinger's "performance," as she put it. Upon further questioning by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) -- who asked about a federal voting rights lawsuit filed by the National Congress of American Indians -- she said she wasn't aware of any "specific" complaints.

"The concern that I heard raised was just that he spent an extraordinary amount of time on the subcommittee business," she testified.

The remarks, for the first time, publicly confirm suspicions about Heffelfinger's tenure as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota. News reports have indicated that he was a potential target but no one from the administration talked about it until Goodling's appearance, which came only after the committee granted her immunity.

From his arrival in September 2001 through his departure in February 2006, Heffelfinger was chairman of the Native American Issues Subcommittee. He was appointed to the position by former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

In an interview last month, Heffelfinger told Indianz.Com that he received top-level support for his efforts. "My experience with Attorney General Gonzales that he was very interested in Indian Country and was very supportive of the work we were doing to improve public safety issues," he said.

But in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio following Goodling's testimony, he said he was "ashamed" that some "lower-level" officials in Washington were concerned about his Indian focus. "If they're telling me I shouldn't have spent time responding to the tragic shooting at Red Lake High School, then shame on them," he said.

"If they're telling me I shouldn't have spent time trying to improve the safety for Native American women and children, who are the most victimized elements of our population, then shame on them again," he added.

Heffelfinger was a visible figure in Indian Country during his time as U.S. Attorney. He frequently appeared at tribal meetings and Indian law conferences to advance his Indian agenda, which consisted of public safety, drug trafficking, violence against women and children, Indian gaming and clarification of criminal jurisdiction.

But some of his main allies on those issues were fired last December by the Bush administration. They include five federal prosecutors who sat on the Native subcommittee and who represented states with a significant Indian presence.

Margaret Chiara, the U.S. Attorney from Michigan who took over Heffelfinger's post as chairman of the subcommittee when he left, was among those fired. "She was a tireless advocate as U.S. Attorney for the issues of women and children, in particular, in Indian Country," Heffelfinger said.

Chaira took the lead on amendments to the Violence Against Women Act, which for the first time included an Indian title. The bill was signed into law in early 2006.

The other fired prosecutors -- including Paul Charlton of Arizona, David Iglesias of New Mexico -- also played significant roles on Indian issues. Charlton helped bust major a methamphetamine ring and prosecuted high-profile crimes on reservations while Iglesias took the lead on a bill to resolve criminal jurisdiction on Pueblo lands.

During a Washington Post online chat yesterday, someone asked Iglesias if he was fired for his "Indian gaming connections." He gave three reasons, including his failure to bring a political corruption case against a Democrat, but didn't say whether his tribal work was at issue.

Goodling Testifies Before The House Judiciary Committee | David Iglesias on U.S. Attorney Firings, Goodling Testimony