Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Fired Federal Prosecutor Bud Cummins Talks to the Flyer

“The way they chose to implement the decisions was incompetent ...”

Posted By on Wed, Mar 7, 2007 at 4:00 AM

Memphians might remember Bud Cummins as the federal prosecutor who came over from Little Rock two years ago to try the strange case of former Shelby County Medical Examiner Dr. O. C. Smith.

This week Cummins is in the national news on another strange case – the case of the fired federal prosecutors who were deemed replaceable by the U.S. Justice Department under President Bush. Under subpoena, Cummins and five other former prosecutors testified Tuesday before House and Senate committees in Washington.

In an exclusive interview with the Flyer Wednesday, Cummins talked about the “painful process.” A lifelong Republican, he served as U.S. Attorney in Little Rock for five years, until he was notified last June that he was being replaced.

“This is the kind of thing you convince yourself only happens in the other party,” he said. “But the truth is, from time to time it is no longer a question of party, it is just a question of right or wrong.”

Cummins said he was not questioning the right of the president and attorney general to replace federal prosecutors, but he resents the way it was done.

“The way they chose to implement the decisions was incompetent,” he said. “The way they have attempted to defend themselves to Congress has been unfair to some of the individuals involved.”

According to a story in Wednesday’s Washington Post, Cummins told House and Senate committees investigating the firings of six United States attorneys last year that “a senior Justice Department official warned him on February 20th that the fired prosecutors should remain quiet about their dismissals.” Cummins reportedly said he was warned that administration officials would “pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully.”

In response to the appearance of Cummins and the five other fired prosecutors, all of whom were subpoenaed by Congress to testify, a Justice Department spokesman said they were disgruntled former employees who were “grandstanding before Congress.”

That hardly describes Cummins, however. According to the Post, administration officials have admitted that he was asked to resign solely to provide a job to a former aide to Bush adviser Karl Rove. Cummins told the Flyer that the heavy-handedness will create an impression of political interference that will be hard to combat.

“Once you lose your credibility, people start second-guessing every decision you make,” he said.

He added that he is grateful to President Bush for the opportunity to be a U.S. Attorney and “not critical at all for him giving someone else that opportunity. That is the nature of the job. You can be up there throwing strikes but if the manager takes the ball from you that is the way it goes. Ultimately it’s the manager’s call.”

Cummins returned to his home in Little Rock Wednesday afternoon, declining interview requests from CNN and "Hard Ball," among others. He said he plans to do some consulting for a biofuels company.

As a prosecutor, Cummins tried some of his own cases. In 2005, he and a colleague got a hung jury in the Smith case, on which Memphis prosecutors recused themselves because of their working relationship with Smith. Smith was accused of staging a bizarre incident in which he was found bound with barbed wire and a homemade bomb outside his office.

The government elected not to retry the case, although Cummins said he was prepared to do so. Cummins showed guts in trying the case, which some members of the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office tried to sweep under the rug or discredit.

At trial, Cummins had to overcome several witnesses who were protecting Smith, whose lawyers claimed he was attacked and bound by a lone assailant. Smith did not take the stand.

In another interview with the Flyer in 2005, Cummins defended Bush and the U.S. attorney general as “absolutely intolerant of prosecutors engaging in political activity of any kind. If you can’t leave politics at the door, you shouldn’t come here or you won’t last.”

At the time of that interview, the U.S. attorney’s job for the Western District of Tennessee was open due to the resignation of Terry Harris, who took a job with FedEx. The position was filled with the appointment of David Kustoff, a Bush political ally and former head of the Shelby County Republican Party.

The firing of Cummins also raises questions about the Justice Department’s approach to domestic terrorism cases. If Smith is to be believed, two years after 9/11, a public official (Smith) and a public building (the medical examiner’s office) in Memphis were targeted for bombings by someone who remains at large. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms called the case its top priority.

But the FBI and federal prosecutors in Memphis are making no effort to look for Smith’s “attacker” even though last year the Memphis office prosecuted a rural West Tennessee man, Van Crocker, for making threats to bomb government buildings.

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