Justice pulls U.S. attorneys off Waco case
September 15, 1999
From CNN Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department has withdrawn the entire office that prosecuted the Branch Davidians in Waco from further involvement in the case, including the man who strongly suggested in an August 30 letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that her department might be engaged in a coverup.
Justice officials say the office is being removed because it may become part of special counsel John Danforth's probe into the FBI and Justice Department's handling of the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound.
Federal prosecutors in Texas involved in the Waco case have been ensnared in controversy for weeks since Bill Johnston, an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, wrote to Reno that he had "formed the belief that facts may have been kept from you -- and quite possibly are being kept from you even now, by components of the Department."
Justice Department sources said Tuesday's decision to remove Johnston's office was in no way retaliation.
"Members of my office advised law enforcement agencies before and during the siege, and handled the criminal trial in 1994," said James W. Blagg, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas.
"Because of their roles in matters that may be under investigation, my office has been recused from all matters to avoid any potential or appearance of conflict of interest."
Justice sources told CNN that Blagg requested that his office be withdrawn from the case. His request was approved by a senior career Justice Department attorney and then approved by Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder made the decision in part because Reno recused herself from the case last week.
It is unclear whether Johnston approved of the recusal. A woman in his office said he would have no comment.
The case will now be handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Texas.
On Capitol Hill, investigations into the FBI and Justice handling of the Waco case are planned in the House by the Government Reform Committee and in the Senate by the Judiciary Committee.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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