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A look back on the US attorney firings

Why were so many Indian-focused advocates targeted?

WASHINGTON - The case of Leslie A. Hagen, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked on Indian affairs in the Justice Department;s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, is refocusing attention on the purge of several officials within the DoJ who were tireless advocates for American Indian legal justice.

In April, questions surfaced in news reports on whether Hagen's sexual preference played into the decision by top officials at the DoJ not to renew her appointment in 2006 for a second year.

Officials with the Inspector General's Office and H. Marshall Jarrett of the Office of Professional Responsibility are now investigating whether Hagen was ''discriminated against in employment decisions on the basis of alleged sexual orientation or other improper factors,'' according to a letter dated April 14. The inquiry into her firing is the latest part of the saga involving controversial personnel decisions made during former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' term.

Hagen's sexual preference may have indeed played a role in her dismissal, but some officials who are familiar with her situation are also centering in on her legal advocacy on the behalf of Native America. Before coming to Washington, Hagen worked in Grand Rapids, Mich., as an assistant U.S. attorney, where she focused on prosecuting crimes against women and children on several of the state's reservations.

During her time in Grand Rapids, Hagen developed several proposals, one of which led to a series of trainings of federal and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors on child abuse.

Another of her proposals recommended several changes to federal law that ultimately made it easier to prosecute cases of habitual domestic violence. As a result of such efforts, she was recognized by tribal leaders and government officials as a strong legal advocate for Indian women and children.

A rising star in the legal world, Hagen was ultimately recruited in October 2005 to come to Washington to serve as the DoJ's liaison to the Native American Issues Subcommittee. In that role, she assisted all U.S. attorneys, advising them on issues related to Native law enforcement and public safety issues. After about a year on the job, she was given high performance reviews and received a raise. Still, in mid-2007, the Bush administration did not renew her term.

Hagen's dismissal, despite her strong work in the Native legal field, appears eerily similar to the situations of several U.S. attorneys who were fired by the Bush administration through early 2007. Five of the eight terminated U.S. attorneys were active members of the NAIS. Many of them were also seen as strong advocates for legal justice on reservations.

Hagen, who now works on another temporary contract in the DoJ's Office of Justice Programs, did not respond to requests for comment.

''I think Leslie's connection to Native American affairs is much more important than questions about her sexuality,'' John Dossett, the general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, said. ''We've never really been given a reason why so many people who were so strong on Indian legal issues were let go.''

Thomas Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney who has now returned to private practice in Minnesota, believes Hagen's involvement with Native legal issues may have played a role in her dismissal. He stays in close contact with her, and was the person who originally recommended her appointment in Washington.

''The department has lost an incredible amount of experience,'' Heffelfinger said soon after the issues surrounding Hagen's sexual orientation made news. ''All of the men and women with the subcommittee, including Leslie ... were really committed to trying to come up with ways to improve public safety.''

Dossett and others say that federal American Indian legal advocacy has suffered as a result of staffing decisions made during the later years of the Bush administration.

''This administration, at least when Alberto Gonzales was attorney general, placed zero priority on Indian law enforcement and prosecution,'' Dossett said. NCAI has met with Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who assumed office in November 2007, about its concerns.

Hagen's former job is believed to be vacant. It's still unknown exactly why she and several others who worked on Indian issues under Gonzales were ultimately dismissed.

Heffelfinger, who served as a U.S. attorney until he left the DoJ on his own in March 2006, learned soon after his departure that he, too, was on the department's list for dismissal. He had served as chairman of the NAIS, meaning he was the chief prosecutor of Indian issues in the country. Had he not left, he would have been another fired U.S. attorney.

During a House Judiciary investigation in May 2007 into the controversies surrounding the U.S. attorney firings, Monica Goodling, who served as senior counsel to Gonzales, indicated that Heffelfinger's focus on Indian issues was problematic from her perspective.

''There were some concerns that he spent an extraordinary amount of time as the leader of the Native American [Issues] Subcommittee ... and put - clearly, people thought that that was important work, but I think there was some concern,'' Goodling testified. But she said she couldn't recall ''anything subject specific'' on why Heffelfinger's NAIS involvement caused concern.

Heffelfinger said he never felt like he was spending too much time on Indian affairs.

''I was doing what I thought was right and still believe to be right.''

During his tenure, he spent many hours dealing with the legal aftereffects of the March 2005 Red Lake reservation shootings in northern Minnesota.

After Heffelfinger left his position, Margaret Chiara, the first female U.S. attorney from Michigan, became the new chair of the NAIS. However, she was forced to resign from her position in March 2007, and has always maintained that she does not know why she was let go by the Bush administration.

Of the firings, Heffelfinger said, ''The numbers and the coincidences speak for themselves.''

U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert, of North Carolina, now oversees the NAIS. It is unknown how much policy and staff support she receives.