By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007
A political tempest over the mass firing of federal prosecutors escalated yesterday with allegations from the departing U.S. attorney in New Mexico, who said that two members of Congress attempted to pressure him to speed up a probe of Democrats just before the November elections.
David C. Iglesias, who left yesterday after more than five years in office, said he received the calls in October and believes that complaints from the lawmakers may have led the Justice Department to fire him late last year.
Iglesias also responded to allegations from Justice officials that he had performed poorly and was too often absent, citing positive job reviews and data showing increasing numbers of prosecutions. He also noted that he is required to serve 40 days a year in the Navy Reserve.
Iglesias declined to name the lawmakers who called him, but he said in an interview: "I didn't give them what they wanted. That was probably a political problem that caused them to go to the White House or whomever and complain that I wasn't a team player."
Iglesias's allegations were met with strong denials from the Justice Department yesterday but prompted the Democratic-controlled House and Senate judiciary committees to announce that they would issue subpoenas for testimony from Iglesias and other fired prosecutors if necessary. Iglesias said he would not testify unless subpoenaed.
Spokesmen for Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and the state's two Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall, said the lawmakers and their staffs had no contact with Iglesias about the case. The offices of New Mexico's two other Republican lawmakers, Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse called Iglesias's allegations "flatly false." Roehrkasse said that Iglesias should have reported any calls from lawmakers, as required under department guidelines.
"The administration has never removed a U.S. attorney in an effort to retaliate against him or inappropriately interfere with a public-integrity investigation," Roehrkasse said.
In briefings about the firings on Capitol Hill, Justice Department officials had said that Iglesias was the target of complaints from members of Congress, according to several sources familiar with the meetings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss personnel issues. The Justice briefers did not specify the nature of those complaints, the sources said.
Iglesias, 49 and the son of a Baptist minister, is a Navy Reserve commander whose role as a defense lawyer in a famous military hazing case was the basis for the Tom Cruise character in the movie "A Few Good Men." He held a news conference in Albuquerque yesterday, in which he said that he was fired for political reasons.
Iglesias was among seven U.S. attorneys notified by phone on Dec. 7 that they were being fired without explanation. An eighth prosecutor, in Little Rock, also was removed in December, to make room for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
The charges by Iglesias added a new dimension to the ongoing controversy over the fired prosecutors, at least four of whom were presiding over major public-corruption probes. Although other fired prosecutors have publicly defended their records, they have never alleged that political pressure related to an ongoing criminal investigation played a role in their dismissals.
In addition to Iglesias's probe of Democrats, fired prosecutors in Arizona, Nevada and California were conducting corruption probes involving Republicans at the time of their dismissals.
"These are extremely serious and very troubling allegations coming from a man of great integrity," said Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been leading a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry into the firings. "They call into question every other firing. We will continue to pursue this until we get to the bottom of what happened and pass legislation to prevent it from ever happening again."
The dismissals have angered Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, in part because they followed a little-noticed change in federal law that lets Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appoint interim prosecutors indefinitely. Legislation has been introduced in both houses to repeal the provision.
Justice officials have acknowledged that they did not fire Bud Cummins from his Little Rock post for cause but have said the others were ousted for "performance-related" reasons. Records show, however, that at least six of the prosecutors, including Iglesias and Cummins, received mostly positive job evaluations before they were forced out.
In an interview Tuesday, Iglesias said the two lawmakers called him about a well-known criminal investigation involving a Democratic legislator. He declined to provide their party affiliation, but his comments indicated the callers were Republicans.
New Mexico media outlets reported last year that the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Albuquerque had opened a probe into allegations involving former Democratic state senator Manny Aragon and government construction projects in Bernalillo County. No charges have been filed in the case.
Iglesias said the lawmakers who called him seemed focused on whether charges would be filed before the November elections. He said the calls made him feel "pressured to hurry the subsequent cases and prosecutions" but said he did not receive similar contacts from anyone in the executive branch. He acknowledged he made a mistake by not reporting the calls to the Justice Department.
Referring to the calls, Iglesias said: "I suspect that was the reason I was asked to step down, but I don't know that I'll ever know."
Iglesias said other criticisms of his performance by the Justice Department "are demonstrably untrue statements." He added: "We all have a right to defend our honor. I felt like my honor and the honor of my office was attacked."
Iglesias produced statistics showing that his office's immigration prosecutions had risen more than 78 percent during his tenure and said the office prosecuted record numbers of narcotics and firearms cases as well.
Iglesias cited a January 2006 letter from Michael A. Battle -- the Justice official who fired him -- commending him for "exemplary leadership in the department's priority programs." A November 2005 evaluation obtained by The Washington Post also said Iglesias was "experienced in legal, management and community relations work and was respected by the judiciary, agencies and staff."
Former deputy attorney general James B. Comey, now general counsel for Lockheed Martin, this week praised Iglesias as "one of our finest and someone I had a lot of confidence in as deputy attorney general."
But Roehrkasse said Justice "had a lengthy record from which to evaluate his performance as a manager, and we made our decision not to further extend his service based on performance-related concerns."