MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The U.S. attorney for Montana has figured prominently in a Senate investigation into the firings of several U.S. attorneys, possibly threatening his chances to be confirmed as the No. 3 official in the Department of Justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee authorized the subpoenas of Bill Mercer, and several other top Justice Department officials, this week as part of an intensifying investigation into whether eight firings were a purge of prosecutors deemed unenthusiastic about presidential goals. Two of the attorneys have testified that Mercer told them they were not fired for performance reasons. Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee is charged with confirming Mercer as associate deputy general in the Justice Department. Mercer has been working both jobs since he was nominated last September. If confirmed, he is expected to leave his position as Montana’s U.S. attorney. “We are optimistic and hopeful that the Senate moves forward and confirms Bill Mercer, who has been a tremendous asset to the department,” said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department. Mercer still is paid as Montana’s U.S. attorney, Roehrkasse said. Mercer is not paid for the Justice Department job, because he has not been confirmed. As the Judiciary Committee stalls on the nomination, the state is without a full-time U. S. attorney. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, Mercer’s top deputy, said Friday that Mercer makes decisions from Washington. “He still handles a large share of his duties,” Alme said. “We are in constant contact.” Mercer’s new job could also be threatened if his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is forced to resign. Some Republican members of Congress have suggested that happen. “It is ultimately the president’s decision, but perhaps it would benefit this administration if the attorney general was replaced with someone with a more professional focus rather than personal loyalty,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. Republican Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire has also called for Bush to replace Gonzales. Montana’s two Democratic senators stopped short of urging Gonzales’s removal. “Jon believes these are serious charges, and if any wrongdoing is discovered he trusts the appropriate changes will be made,” said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Sen. Jon Tester. Sen. Max Baucus is “extremely troubled” by allegations of impropriety, spokesman Barrett Kaiser said. “He’s going to gather information and watch the process closely and see what results ... before making any determinations,” Kaiser said. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana issued a similar statement. “Mistakes have been made and Attorney General Gonzales has admitted as much,” Rehberg said. “Information continues to come in almost daily now and I will continue to watch the situation closely. If laws were broken, then those responsible must be held accountable.” Regardless of Gonzales’ fate, his aides and most of the prosecutors he fired will be questioned under oath. The Judiciary Committee approved subpoenas for Mercer and four other Justice officials Thursday as a safeguard against the attorney general retracting his permission for them to testify voluntarily. Roehrkasse said Thursday that the subpoena authorizations were unnecessary because Gonzales had agreed to make his aides available. Mercer does not oversee U.S. attorney matters and was in Montana while some decisions were being made, Roehrkasse said. As for Mercer’s conversations with the attorneys, Roehrkasse said, he was just being supportive. “Because he did not supervise the U.S. attorneys, he had no basis to discuss with them their specific reasons for their dismissal, and he focused on being sympathetic,” Roehrkasse said.