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White House Backed U.S. Attorney Firings, Officials Say
Domenici's office confirmed yesterday that it had raised concerns with the Justice Department about Iglesias's office, particularly on immigration.
"We had very legitimate concerns expressed to us by hundreds of New Mexicans -- in the media, in the legal communities and just regular citizens -- about the resources that were available to the U.S. attorney," said Steve Bell, Domenici's chief of staff.
Domenici and his aides have declined to comment on whether the lawmaker called Iglesias. Any communication by a senator or House member with a federal prosecutor regarding an ongoing criminal investigation is a violation of ethics rules.
The fired prosecutors in San Diego and Nevada are registered independents, while the rest are generally viewed as moderate Republicans, according to administration officials and many of the fired prosecutors.
In a recent briefing with lawmakers, McNulty said one factor in the decision to create the list of U.S. attorneys was the concern raised by various members of Congress and law enforcement officials that some U.S. attorneys were not following Bush administration policies or federal sentencing rules, administration officials said.
The Justice Department received several letters dating to 2005 and signed by more than a dozen California lawmakers, mostly Republicans, raising concerns about then-U.S. Attorney Carol S. Lam's approach to prosecuting immigration cases. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, also wrote Gonzales in June, saying that the "low prosecution rates have a demoralizing effect on the men and women patrolling our nation's borders."
On the job less than a year, McNulty consulted his predecessor as deputy attorney general, James B. Comey, about some of the prosecutors before approving the list, officials said. Comey, who did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday, praised Iglesias earlier this week as one of the department's best prosecutors.
The seven prosecutors outside Arkansas were informed about their ousters on Dec. 7, after the White House counsel's office signed off.
A few days before the firings, administration officials began the traditional process of calling lawmakers in the affected states to inform them about the decisions and to gather early input on possible successors, officials said.
Although the White House approved the firings, two administration officials said the counsel's office did not suggest replacements. But the officials said White House political affairs officials keep databases on potential job candidates that Justice Department officials could have accessed if they chose.
An administration official said White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten does not recall whether he was briefed about the firings before they occurred.
Privately, White House officials acknowledged that the administration mishandled the firings by not explaining more clearly to lawmakers that a large group was being terminated at once -- which is unusual -- and that the reason was the policy performance review.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz, washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.