By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Six fired U.S. attorneys testified on Capitol Hill yesterday that they had separately been the target of complaints, improper telephone calls and thinly veiled threats from a high-ranking Justice Department 8official or members of Congress, both before and after they were abruptly removed from their jobs.
In back-to-back hearings in the Senate and House, former U.S. 8attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and five other former prosecutors recounted specific instances in which some said they felt pressured by Republicans on corruption cases and one said a Justice Department official warned him to keep quiet or face retaliation.
Iglesias's allegations of congressional interference have prompted a Senate ethics committee inquiry. Yesterday he offered new details about telephone calls he received in October from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), saying he felt "leaned on" and "sickened" by the contacts seeking information about an investigation of a local Democrat.
Another former prosecutor, John McKay of Seattle, alleged for the first time that he received a call from the chief of staff to Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), asking about an inquiry into vote-fraud charges in the state's hotly contested 2004 guber8natorial election. McKay said he cut the call short.
Ed Cassidy, a former Hastings aide who now works for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said yesterday that the call was routine and did not violate "permissible limits" on contact with federal prosecutors. Hastings, the ranking Republican on the House ethics committee, also said that the exchange was "entirely appropriate."
In remarks after the hearings, McKay said that officials in the White House counsel's office, including then-counsel Harriet E. Miers, asked him to explain why he had "mishandled" the governor's race during an interview for a federal judgeship in September 2006. McKay was informed after his dismissal that he also was not a finalist for the federal bench.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel declined last night to respond to McKay's comments.
Yesterday's testimony featured new allegations of threatened overt retaliation against the prosecutors, as former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock said a senior Justice Department official warned him on Feb. 20 that the fired prosecutors should remain quiet about their dismissals. Cummins recounted in an 8e-mail made public yesterday that the 8official cautioned that administration officials would "pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully."
"It seemed clear that they would see that as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation," Cummins wrote in the 8e-mail, which he sent as a cautionary note to fellow prosecutors.
The senior official, Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, wrote in a letter to the Senate that he never intended to send a threatening message in his talks with Cummins. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that "a private and collegial conversation" was "being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress."
The six U.S. attorneys who appeared yesterday had declined to testify voluntarily. They were subpoenaed by a House Judiciary subcommittee and threatened with subpoenas in the Senate. Their testimony marked the latest twist in the U.S. attorneys saga, which began quietly on Dec. 7 with a spate of firings, but has prompted concern among current and former federal prosecutors that the firings -- and the Justice Department's evasive and shifting explanations -- threaten to permanently damage the credibility of U.S. attorney's offices nationwide.
"The whole series of events has been remarkable and unprecedented," said Mary Jo White, who served for nine years as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Clinton and Bush administrations. "It's not a matter of whether they have the power to do it; it's a matter of the wisdom of the 8actions taken. It shows a total disregard for the institution of the U.S. attorney's offices and what they stand for."
Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said during the testimony that "if the allegations are correct, there has been serious misconduct in what has occurred."
The Justice Department said initially that the prosecutors had "performance-related" problems, but more recently it asserted that they had not adequately carried out Bush administration priorities on immigration, the death penalty and other 8issues. The department has also acknowledged that Cummins, the Little Rock prosecutor, was asked to resign solely to provide a job for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
"In hindsight, perhaps this situation could have been handled better," Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella said in prepared testimony yesterday in the House. " . . . That said, the department stands by the decisions."
Moschella said Justice did not intend to evade Senate oversight of U.S. attorneys, who under a new law can be appointed on an interim basis indefinitely by 8Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
For the first time, Moschella detailed in public the department's rationale for each of the dismissals (although most of the claims had previously been aired through anonymous comments and documents leaked to reporters). All but one of the fired prosecutors had received positive job evaluations, but Justice officials say those reports do not include all possible performance problems.
Moschella also said it is "dangerous, baseless and irresponsible" to allege that the firings were linked to unhappiness over public corruption probes, as Iglesias and some Democrats have alleged.
In addition to Iglesias, four other fired prosecutors were conducting political corruption investigations of Republicans when they were dismissed. Carol S. Lam of San Diego, for example, oversaw the guilty plea of former Republican representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, and brought related indictments against a former CIA official and a defense contractor.
Iglesias testified that Wilson called him while he was visiting Washington on Oct. 16 to quiz him about an investigation of a state Democrat related to kickbacks in a courthouse construction project.
"What can you tell me about sealed indictments?" Iglesias said Wilson asked him.
Iglesias said "red flags" immediately went up in his mind because it was unethical for him to talk about an ongoing criminal investigation, particularly on the timing of indictments.
"I was evasive and unresponsive," he said of his conversation with Wilson. She became upset, Iglesias testified, and ended the conversation.
"Well, I guess I'll have to take your word for it," she said, according to Iglesias.
About 10 days later, Iglesias said, Domenici's chief of staff, Steve Bell, called Iglesias at his home in New Mexico and "indicated there were some complaints by constituents." Domenici then got on the phone for a conversation that lasted "one to two minutes," Iglesias recalled.
"Are these going to be filed before November?" Domenici asked, Iglesias testified, referring to the kickback case. Unnerved by the call, Iglesias said he responded that they were not.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Domenici replied, according to Iglesias, who added that the senator then hung up.
"I felt sick afterward," Iglesias said, acknowledging that he did not report the calls to Washington as required under Justice rules. "I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving."
Domenici stressed in a statement issued yesterday that Iglesias "confirmed" that the senator never mentioned the November election and that he had no idea why the prosecutor felt "violated." In a separate statement, Wilson said she was only passing on complaints from unidentified constituents and apologized for any "confusion" about the call.
In the e-mail released yesterday, Cummins wrote that Elston called him after a Feb. 18 Washington Post article, which quoted Cummins as criticizing Justice officials for blaming the firings on performance problems. He said that he defended his remarks, and that he made a point of noting that the prosecutors had declined invitations to testify before Congress.
"He reacted quite a bit to the idea of anyone voluntarily testifying," Cummins wrote, adding 8later: "I don't want to stir you up . . . or overstate the threatening undercurrent in the call, but the message was clearly there and you should be aware before you speak to the press again if you choose to do that."
Cummins testified that he did not feel threatened by the conversation, but others, including Iglesias and McKay, said they took it as such.
Former U.S. attorneys Daniel Bogden of Las Vegas and Paul Charlton of Phoenix also testified.