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3 aides to US attorney in Minn. step down

Some associates view act as protest

Rachel K. Paulose, 34, is the first woman in Minnesota history to hold the post of US attorney. Rachel K. Paulose, 34, is the first woman in Minnesota history to hold the post of US attorney.

WASHINGTON -- Rachel K. Paulose's swearing-in on March 9 as the US attorney in Minneapolis stirred debate in local legal circles because of the ceremonial trappings, including a performance by a municipal choir and a Marine Corps color guard, at the event attended by more than 300 people at the city's University of St. Thomas law school.

But the complaints about Paulose's investiture seem mild in comparison with the uproar ignited on Thursday, when three of her top deputies stepped down from their leadership positions. Several of their associates described the action as a protest over what the three deputies regarded as Pau- lose's ideologically driven and dictatorial managerial style.

None of the three is quitting. Each is returning to a nonsupervisory role within the office, but their decisions to give up their managerial roles signaled a rebellion of sorts to Paulose. At 34, she is the first woman in the state's history to hold the US attorney post, and the first person of South Asian descent in the country to be confirmed in that position.

Paulose was a senior aide to Paul J. McNulty, the deputy attorney general, before she was named as an interim US attorney in Minneapolis in early 2006. The appointment followed the resignation of Thomas B. Heffelfinger, who was selected for the job during President Bush's first term.

Heffelfinger said he left voluntarily and had been under no pressure to resign, but he was not among the Justice Department's most highly regarded prosecutors, according to Justice Department officials who have not said whether, before his resignation, he was on a list of possible candidates for removal.

But e-mail released by the Justice Department suggests that Heffelfinger may have been on a preliminary list. One e-mail message in January 2006 from D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, to Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, listed seven prosecutors who might be removed.

The names of three additional US attorneys were edited from the copy of the e-mail message turned over to Congress, apparently because they had resigned and were replaced with other prosecutors slated for dismissal.

Because Heffelfinger was among the three who resigned shortly after the e-mail was sent, there has been speculation he may have been on a list. He said he did not know whether he was ever on any Justice Department list.

One Democratic senator said the problems in the Minneapolis office could reflect broader problems caused by last year's dismissals.

"This is another example of the proud corps of US attorneys being deprofessionalized," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who has led the congressional inquiry into the removals. "We wonder in how many other offices the same lack of confidence is taking its toll. Attorney General Gonzales has a responsibility to see that the finest people are put in these positions, not simply cronies."

Paulose had experience as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota from 1999 to 2002, but she is one of several conservative lawyers who worked at Justice Department headquarters or the White House who have been named to top jobs in US attorneys offices on an interim basis. Others are J. Timothy Griffin in Arkansas, Bradley J. Schlozman in Missouri, R. Alexander Acosta in Miami, and Matthew M. Dummermuth in Iowa.

Jeanne F. Cooney, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis office, said yesterday that John Marti, the top assistant prosecutor; Erika R. Mozangue, chief of the office's civil division, and James E. Lackner, head of the office's criminal division, had returned to their prosecutorial jobs. Cooney said Paulose would have no comment.

The decisions by the three prosecutors to step down came after a career prosecutor assigned to the Justice Department's US attorney liaison office flew to Minneapolis on Thursday to meet with the prosecutors and Paulose in an unsuccessful effort to mediate the conflict.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a statement that Paulose was selected for the appointment only with the approval of Norm Coleman, the state's Republican senator, and had been unanimously confirmed by the Senate.

"She is dedicated to leading an effective US attorney's office in Minnesota and enforcing the laws to ensure public safety," Roehrkasse said. "Three managers have determined to go back to the line to be full-time prosecutors protecting the community they serve, and the department respects their decisions."

Paulose's defenders at Justice Department headquarters said that the criticism of her is unwarranted. They said that older lawyers had difficultly dealing with a young and aggressive woman who had tried to put into place policies important to Gonzales such as programs to combat child exploitation.

But their associates said that conflict has been steadily building since Paulose arrived as an interim US attorney in early 2006. They said she had embraced the department's policies with a single-minded zeal that cost her the confidence and trust of lawyers in her office.