Seven months before he was forced to resign as U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington, John McKay received a glowing performance...

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Seven months before he was forced to resign as U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington, John McKay received a glowing performance review from Justice Department evaluators.

“McKay is an effective, well-regarded and capable leader of the [U.S. attorney’s office] and the District’s law enforcement community,” the team of 27 Justice Department officials concluded, according to a copy of their final report obtained by The Seattle Times.

Yet on Dec. 7, Michael Battle, director of the Justice Department’s executive office for U.S. attorneys, called McKay and asked him to step down.

“I was told to resign by the end of January,” McKay confirmed Wednesday. “I asked what the reason was, and they told me there was none.

“Ultimately, I serve at the pleasure of the president,” McKay said. “I accept that now and I accepted that then, and that’s why I resigned.”

McKay’s revelation came one day after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the Senate judiciary committee that six U.S. attorneys had been asked to resign in December for “performance-related” issues.

Democrats convened the hearing to express concerns that the White House was purging U.S. attorneys, either to replace them with political loyalists or to penalize them for cases they prosecuted.

McNulty denied both assertions at the hearing.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was not satisfied.

“I would like the Justice Department to inform me exactly what it means by ‘performance-related’ reasons and reassure me that Mr. McKay was not dismissed solely on the basis of partisan politics,” Murray wrote in a letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the judiciary committee. Tasia Scolinos, director of public affairs for the Department of Justice, said the department would not confirm whether McKay was asked to step down, or why.

“The department appreciates John’s commitment to the job and the important work done during his tenure as U.S. attorney,” Scolinos said.

McKay’s forced resignation, and the suggestion that it was due to poor performance, shocked many in the Seattle legal community.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik said that among federal judges in Western Washington, “it was unanimous that our feeling was John McKay was an absolutely superb U.S. attorney, and by every measure the performance of his office improved during his tenure.”

Norm Maleng, King County Prosecutor, said, “[McKay] took the U.S. attorney’s office to a higher level. He reached out to every prosecutor in Western Washington, and renewed connections and hooked back into their needs.”

The assessment of McKay’s office by the Justice Department’s Evaluation and Review Staff (EARS) was similarly laudatory.

An EARS review, as it is known inside the Justice Department, is conducted every three years of each U.S. attorney’s office.

Roger McRoberts, deputy criminal chief of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Texas, led the team that evaluated McKay’s office. McRoberts declined to comment Wednesday.

In March 2006, McRoberts and his colleagues interviewed more than 170 federal and local law-enforcement officials. Their final report gave McKay’s office high marks for the productivity of its criminal division, its anti-terrorism program and its complex drug investigations.

McKay, 50, was personally commended for his collaborative relationships with federal, state and local authorities, and for reaching out to his Canadian counterparts.

“[McKay] has been responsible for major advances in a cooperative cross-border effort,” the report said. “All involved in these efforts pointed to U.S. Attorney McKay as the individual most responsible for the dramatic increase in cooperation.”

McKay, nominated by President Bush to be U.S. attorney in late 2001, served during a time of sweeping legal changes, such as the Patriot Act and technological advancements.

The U.S. Navy last month gave McKay its Distinguished Public Service Award, its highest civilian honor, for creating a computer network that enhances the ability of local, state and federal law enforcement to share information.

McKay personally prosecuted several high-profile cases, including the sentencing and appeals of Ahmed Ressam, who was convicted in 2001 on terrorism and explosives charges for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium.

McKay said last month that he planned to join the faculty of Seattle University Law School.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com