The exodus of top Justice Department officials continues with Richard Hertling--embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's point man in dealing with Congress--slated to resign next week to take a top policy job with the soon-to-be-announced presidential campaign of Fred Thompson, a senior Justice official confirmed to NEWSWEEK.
Hertling, who has been serving as acting attorney general for legislative affairs, is the latest in a parade of departures in recent months that is threatening to leave the Justice Department virtually denuded of senior political appointees. Since the controversy over the firing of U.S. attorneys erupted earlier this year, more than half a dozen top officials have either resigned or announced their intention to do so, including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, his chief of staff, Michael Elston, Acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer, Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and White House liaison Monica Goodling.
"The Titanic is sinking," Bruce Fein, a former top Justice Department official under the Reagan administration and a sharp Gonzales critic, said today about Hertling's resignation. "The fact is the department has become dysfunctional. Gonzales is going to be left with no subordinates."
A mild-mannered and well-regarded former Senate staffer, Hertling has been in the line of fire in the battle over the abrupt and seemingly inexplicable firings last year of nine U.S. attorneys. He has also been forced to repeatedly clean up public misstatements by the attorney general and others at Justice, turning over a steady stream of newly discovered internal e-mails and other documents that have contradicted previous explanations for why and how the prosecutors were dismissed. In one notable example, in March Hertling had to send a letter to Congress retracting the department's previous denial that White House aide Karl Rove's office had no involvement in the replacement of the U.S. attorney in Arkansas--a retraction that, along with other revelations, ultimately led House and Senate Judiciary committees to subpoena documents and testimony from White House officials. (The White House this week asserted Executive Privilege over the documents and said it was instructing two subpoenaed former officials--ex-Rove political deputy Sara Taylor and ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers--not to testify.)
There have been no allegations that Hertling himself misled Congress; instead, even congressional critics have accepted that he was simply passing along to lawmakers assertions from higher ups that later turned out to be inaccurate. For his part, Hertling has told colleagues his resignation is not directly related to the U.S. attorney flap; instead, he has told them he was eager to go to work for Thompson, for whom he once worked as a press aide in the Senate. "Ever since Thompson's name first got mentioned, Richard was hoping and praying that he would get into the race," said one senior department official, who asked not to be identified talking about personnel matters.
Still, Hertling's job is one more top post that the attorney general will now have to fill at a time when he is under siege from Capitol Hill. In recent weeks, Gonzales has been struggling to find replacements for McNulty and others. Although he has personally sought to recruit candidates to fill the top slots, the attorney general has found few, if any, takers. One veteran lawyer who was recently approached for a high-level position (and who asked not to be identified talking about private conversations) said he made it clear that he had no interest in going to work for the Justice Department right now. "Are you crazy?" the lawyer said when asked if he would consider the idea.