Justice Served? 

Fired federal prosecutor Bud Cummins talks about being purged.

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.

Last week, Cummins was in the national news on another strange case -- the case of the fired federal prosecutors who were purged by the U.S. Justice Department under President Bush. Under subpoena and the bright lights of C-SPAN, Cummins and five other former prosecutors testified before House and Senate committees in Washington.

In an exclusive interview with the Flyer, 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 in December.

"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 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."

Cummins told the congressional committees that "a senior Justice Department official warned him on February 20th that the fired prosecutors should remain quiet about their dismissals." Cummins said he was warned that administration officials would "pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully."

Cummins was fired in order to provide a job for Tim Griffin, a former aide to Bush adviser Karl Rove and an opposition researcher for the Republican Party. Cummins told the Flyer that the heavy-handedness creates 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."

As a prosecutor, Cummins and colleague Patrick Harris showed guts in trying the O.C. Smith case after local prosecutors either passed on it or recused themselves because of their working relationship with the medical examiner. 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.

At trial, Cummins had to deal with several witnesses from the police department and district attorney general's office who were protecting Smith, whose lawyers claimed he was attacked and bound by a lone assailant. Smith did not take the stand. His alleged attacker is still at large but has not struck again.

In an interview with the Flyer in 2005, Cummins defended Bush and the 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."

In hindsight, he gave his bosses too much credit.

The purge of federal prosecutors is especially troubling for Memphis and unfair to U.S. attorney David Kustoff and assistant U.S. attorney Tim Discenza. Even though all the Memphis and Shelby County politicians indicted so far in Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper have been black Democrats, Kustoff, Discenza, and FBI agent in charge My Harrison have promised to be nonpolitical. Since the investigations are ongoing, they deserve to be taken at their word. But the treatment of Cummins and his seven colleagues makes that hard to do.

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