The bumpy, 20-month tenure of Minnesota U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose ended abruptly Monday when she announced that she will return to Washington in January to serve as a legal policy adviser to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his staff.
The announcement came after rumors filtered to the legal community that another top attorney in Paulose's office, Michael Cheever, had stepped down Friday as senior litigation counsel, and that her new civil chief, Greg Brooker, was also planning to go back to working as a prosecutor.
Sources said that comments Paulose made last week to conservative blogger Scott Johnson on National Review Online prompted the latest staff uprising.
Paulose, 34, has had a rocky tenure as the top federal law enforcer in the state. She was the youngest person to take the job in Minnesota when she accepted an interim appointment in March 2006 to lead the office that prosecutes federal criminal and civil matters.
But her time as U.S. attorney was marred by internal strife in the office. In April, several of her top managers quit their posts in a group protest of her management style.
On Monday, former Minnesota U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said: "I do believe that Rachel's departure is good news for the U.S. attorney's office. Her tenure has been marked with significant internal problems, which were undermining morale."
He said some prosecutors in her office were upset that Paulose had complained to the blogger of being victimized by a "McCarthyite hysteria" that smeared her because of her religious faith, conservative views, sex and/or race. Heffelfinger said it caused a number of employees "to stand up and say enough is enough."
The Bush administration had selected Paulose after Heffelfinger's unexpected resignation in February 2006. She had served briefly as senior counsel to then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty in Washington, where she was also a special counsel for health care fraud.
She was eventually recommended for the permanent post by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and was approved unanimously by the Senate just before it adjourned Dec. 9. But her relative youth, Republican credentials and selection by the administration made her suspect to many as a GOP political operative.
Those suspicions deepened last winter as congressional hearings into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys progressed. Paulose was tainted by her friendship with the Justice Department's White House liaison Monica Goodling. Goodling was a central figure in the process by which the U.S. attorneys were targeted for removal. Those concerns deepened when it was revealed that Heffelfinger had been under consideration for firing before he surprised the administration and quit to return to private practice.
Complaints come from within
The most public complaint about Paulose came from her own staff April 5. Several of her top managers quit their posts in a group protest of her management style, which has been described as dictatorial and at times vindictive. They include former First Assistant U.S. Attorney John Marti, former civil chief Erika Mozangue, former criminal chief James Lackner, and human resources officer Tim Anderson, who had been acting as office manager until the schism.
Neither Cheever nor Brooker returned calls Monday seeking comments about their actions. Office spokesman David Anderson said late Monday afternoon that both have agreed to remain as part of the office's management team.
Paulose did not return a call seeking a comment but released this statement: "I have been honored by the opportunity to serve our nation as United States Attorney for the District of Minnesota and to work with this office, our tremendous law enforcement partners and the people of Minnesota. I look forward to a new opportunity to work on policy issues that are important to the mission of the Department."
Paulose's announcement leaves unanswered questions. For one, it's unclear what will become of an inquiry by the Office of Special Counsel, which has been investigating an allegation that she retaliated against an assistant for reporting that she had mishandled some classified documents, and that she allegedly referred to an administrative employee in her office as "fat,"black" and "lazy." Paulose said she reported the security breach herself and was cleared; she denies that she disparaged the employee with such terms.
Former U.S. attorneys react
Former U.S. attorney David Lillehaug said Monday: "The resignation is in the best interest of everyone. The office has always had a tremendous national reputation and to the extent that it has been threatened, I think it will rebound quickly and regain its status."
Doug Kelley, a former assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in white-collar crime defense, scoffed. "She was kicked out and kicked up," he said.
Heffelfinger called her transition "interesting."Unlike other U.S. attorneys who in the past have faced the kinds of allegations she's facing regarding management of her office, she wasn't removed from office," he said. "She was given an opportunity to take a staff position.
"I don't know if that means that those investigations are over or they're going to deal with them while she's there."
Paulose lists body of work
It's unclear who will succeed her.
The White House referred the issue to the Justice Department, which did not address questions about Paulose's tenure in Minnesota.
"We are pleased that Rachel Paulose has accepted the position of counselor to the assistant attorney general in the department's Office of Legal Policy," said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "We appreciate her service as U.S. attorney and are fortunate that the department will continue to be able to benefit from her exceptional legal skill in this new capacity."
In her news release, Paulose recounted her initiatives against human trafficking, child pornography, gun trafficking, economic crime narcotics trafficking and terrorism. Child pornography prosecutions tripled on her watch, gun prosecutions doubled, and human trafficking indictments went from zero to 32 defendants. Paulose also cited productivity increases, noting the indictment of 668 defendants in 2007. Typically, 400 to 450 are indicted annually.
Paulose has her fans, and she included some of their comments in her news release.
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington described her as "the most aggressive U.S. attorney that I have ever worked with and the most successful." He said she helped make St. Paul safer by prosecuting gang members, counseled children on Internet safety and targeted child predators.
B.J. Zapor, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said her departure would be "a loss for the law enforcement community in this district."
Staff writers Kevin Diaz and Paul McEnroe contributed to this report.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493
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