Tom Heffelfinger

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger speaks with reporters after Thursday's annual meeting of the Hennepin County Bar Association in Minneapolis.

Ann Heisenfelt, Associated Press

Heffelfinger slams Justice Department

  • Article by: Eric Black
  • Star Tribune
  • May 24, 2007 - 11:18 PM

In a blistering attack that won a standing ovation from more than 200 members of the Hennepin County Bar Association, former U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger on Thursday defended his work on Indian issues and accused Justice Department officials of firing people without knowing the most basic information about their qualifications.

Heffelfinger, who says he had no idea anyone in Washington was thinking of firing him when he resigned his position as U.S. attorney in February 2006, has gradually become more open about his outrage over the controversy around the firing of U.S. attorneys as his name has been more publicly linked to it.

In remarks to the Bar Association in Minneapolis, he reached a new peak, saying among other things that "something is fundamentally broken within the Department of Justice."

And he read aloud from an e-mail, written by Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to other Justice Department officials under pressure to explain how particular U.S. attorneys had become candidates for dismissal.

Sampson suggested the attorneys on the list -- including Heffelfinger -- "had no federal prosecution experience when they took the job."

This elicited a burst of shocked laughter from the audience, many of whom knew Heffelfinger had been a Hennepin County prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, and had served a previous term as U.S. attorney for Minnesota under the first President Bush before the second President Bush appointed him in 2001.

In testimony in Washington on Wednesday, former Justice Department official Monica Goodling said that the complaints she had heard about Heffelfinger were that he spent too much time on American Indian issues. Heffelfinger defended his commitment to issues of Indian law and then called the claim that he was too interested in the issue "outrageous and shameful." That brought the biggest ovation of his luncheon address.

"This list, which was a brainchild of people who are now avoiding responsibility for it, was developed after the Red Lake High School shooting, a federal crime for which I was quite visibly responsible," Heffelfinger said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he wants to question more current and former Justice Department officials about why Heffelfinger was considered for dismissal.

Theory in DFL circles

Ellison subscribes to a theory that has been circulating in DFL circles since Heffelfinger's name arose. The theory is that Heffelfinger irritated some Republican partisans because he didn't support former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer's policy on the use of tribal identification cards by Indians for voting. Under her policy in a state law she had supported, Indians who live outside reservations could not use the cards to register to vote on Election Day. Indians have tended to vote Democratic in Minnesota. And according to this theory her policy would have made it harder for Indians to vote. Kiffmeyer disputes this.

On the eve of the 2004 election, a federal civil-rights lawsuit ensued and Kiffmeyer eventually settled the case by agreeing to allow the use of the cards.

On Wednesday, Ellison asked Goodling about the matter at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, but Goodling disclaimed any contact with Kiffmeyer or any knowledge of the tribal identity card issue.

Ellison acknowledged he can't prove his theory, but he thinks Goodling's assertion that complaints about Heffelfinger derived from his work on Indian issues may have reflected partisan anger at Heffelfinger "because he was not participating in an effort to suppress Native American votes."

Heffelfinger does not subscribe to the theory. He says he never ruled against Kiffmeyer's position on tribal identity cards and said the matter was resolved by the Voting Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington.

Kiffmeyer said Ellison and others are "making a connection where absolutely none exists."

No complaints from Gonzales

Heffelfinger says he takes Goodling's word that his problem was that he was too involved in his work with Indians and his chairmanship of a subcommittee of U.S. attorneys dealing with Indian matters. He was appointed to that position by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who, he said, approved his plans for the Indian law group.

And, he told reporters after the luncheon speech, he also briefed Gonzales on his continuing plans and commitment to the issue, and Gonzales made no complaints about any of it.

Minnesota tribal officials Thursday rejected the idea that Heffelfinger spent too much time on Indian issues.

Steven Day, police chief for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said, "He did a wonderful job for Leech Lake." Day said, "With his help, we took down some major Native gang members who are now sitting in jail. With his help, we took $1.2 million of drugs off our streets. He's been nothing but a great help."

Red Lake Tribal Chair Floyd (Buck) Jourdain said he greatly appreciated Heffelfinger's presence in the days after the March 2005 shooting at the Red Lake school. Jourdain's son, Louis, later pleaded guilty to sending threatening messages in connection with the shootings.

Jourdain credited Heffelfinger with helping start a Family Advocacy Center in Bemidji to curb family violence in northwest Minnesota.

But, Jourdain said, there are many tribe members who look back on Heffelfinger's tenure wishing more had been done to battle drug and gang crimes on the reservation.

Heffelfinger was often seen at Indian country events around the nation, leaving some members of tribal governments to wonder whether he was positioning himself for a career in Indian country after his stint as U.S. attorney, Jourdain said.

"He's made friends in Indian country and he has his critics," Jourdain said. "I can't speak for the other tribes, but he didn't spend very much time up here. While he worked with us, I'm not sure people were happy with the end result."

That sentiment was echoed by Steve Blake, chair of the Twin Cities branch of the American Indian Movement. "If he spent all this time on our issues, what did he do?" Blake asked.

Eric Black • 612 673-7294 Staff writer Howie Padilla contributed to this report. •

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