Ex-aide: Justice had concerns with attorney general's work on Indian issues


By Frederic J. Frommer -- Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department had concerns about the amount of time that former U.S. attorney for Minnesota Tom Heffelfinger spent on American Indian issues, the department's former White House liaison testified May 23.

It was the first public possible explanation of why Heffelfinger, who resigned last year, wound up on a list of prosecutors to be considered for dismissal.

''There were some concerns that he spent an extraordinary amount of time as the leader of the Native American subcommittee of the AGAC [Attorney General's Advisory Committee],'' Monica Goodling told Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

In a telephone interview, Heffelfinger said it was the first time he heard anyone from the Justice Department articulate any dissatisfaction with his performance. Heffelfinger has maintained that he left without any pressure from the Bush administration.

''I did spend a lot of time on it,'' Heffelfinger said of the American Indian issue. ''That's what I was instructed to do'' by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Given the higher rates of violence suffered by American Indians, Heffelfinger said, the time was warranted, but it didn't take away from other priorities.

''I had to work hard, but I was comfortable with the mix of my local responsibilities and my Native American responsibilities,'' said Heffelfinger, who oversaw his office's investigation into the 2005 shooting that claimed 10 lives on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.

He said he wasn't surprised by Goodling's testimony.

''I was very pointed in my dealings with main Justice to continually bring to their attention the need for focus on Native American public safety issues, because of the level of violence,'' Heffelfinger said.

Ellison also pressed Goodling about the department's decision to replace Heffelfinger with Rachel Paulose. He asked her why it bypassed Joan Humes, whom Goodling interviewed after Heffelfinger announced his resignation. Humes had been chief of the civil division in the U.S. attorney's office and clerked for U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum.

''You knew she was Democrat, right?'' Ellison asked.

''I actually don't know that. I heard she was a Democrat,'' Goodling responded. ''I did hear she was a liberal.''

''OK. You heard she was a liberal. Was that a factor - was that a factor in your decision to bypass her?''

''I think it was a factor in some ways,'' Goodling said. ''But it wasn't the overarching factor.''

Ellison also asked Goodling if she was a friend of Paulose's. Goodling said the two became friends after Paulose was hired, but haven't spoken since February or March of this year. Critics have suggested Paulose's appointment was an example of political cronyism. This year, three lawyers in her office resigned from their top management posts, raising questions about her management style and experience. Ellison pressed that point.

''So you all bypassed a chief of civil and went to somebody who had no experience in management simply because they were a liberal?'' he asked.

''No, not at all,'' Goodling said. ''There were other reasons involved in the decision.''

Goodling tried to elaborate, but Ellison, who had only five minutes, pressed on with other questions, causing some Republicans on the committee to object.

Goodling told Ellison that Paulose's political affiliation as a Republican played a role in her hiring.

Paulose's spokesman didn't return a call from The Associated Press on May 23. Paulose told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis there have been ''a large number of mischaracterizations regarding my professional experience, including today.''

In a telephone interview after the hearing, Ellison said, ''What this shows is that if you are a moderate Republican who puts justice in front of politics, you're not good enough for them - hence having Heffelfinger being put on the list.''

''What kind of society are we trying to have here?'' he added. ''Does competence mean anything? Apparently it doesn't.''

Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman said that Heffelfinger's work on American Indian issues should not have caused any concerns.

''His name never should have shown up on the Department of Justice's list of attorneys considered for dismissal - particularly if it had anything to do with his work with the Native American community,'' said Klobuchar, a Democrat.

''His efforts to address the issue of violence within the Native American community, particul-arly the victims of the Red Lake shooting, should be commended,'' said Coleman, a Republican.