By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 8, 2007
Senate Democrats said yesterday they are preparing to subpoena five senior Justice Department officials as part of a widening probe into whether eight U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons.
The fallout from the investigation into why the prosecutors were dismissed continued yesterday. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) hired a top defense attorney to handle a related probe by the Senate ethics committee, which is investigating allegations that he pressured a New Mexico prosecutor to bring indictments against a Democrat just before the November elections.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote today to authorize subpoenas for Justice officials, including Michael A. Battle, who carried out the firings, and Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
Republicans are likely to exercise their right under committee rules to delay the issue for a week, several aides said. But Democrats said the subpoena push signals their intent to continue digging into the firings.
The new subpoena threat followed dramatic testimony Tuesday from six of the fired U.S. attorneys, including two who alleged that GOP lawmakers or staffers had made improper telephone calls asking about ongoing criminal investigations. A third prosecutor said a Justice Department official warned him two weeks ago that he and his colleagues should keep quiet or risk retaliation.
"Now that it's clear that there was a concerted effort to purge an impressive crop of U.S. attorneys, the next step is to identify and question those responsible for hatching this scheme to use U.S. attorneys as pawns in a political chess game," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the Justice Department had provided Congress "with very forthcoming facts and information," including new details in House testimony on Tuesday.
"It is now clear that some members of Congress are no longer interested in those facts, but would rather play politics," Roehrkasse said.
Gonzales, in an opinion piece published yesterday in USA Today, called the firings "an overblown personnel matter."
Former New Mexico U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias testified that Domenici called him at home in October to ask whether indictments would be issued before the election in a probe of alleged courthouse construction kickbacks related to a prominent local Democrat. Iglesias said he received a similar call earlier from Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who allegedly quizzed him about "sealed indictments."
Domenici and Wilson dispute those details, and said separately that they did not intend to threaten or intimidate Iglesias.
K. Lee Blalack II, who represented former GOP congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) in a case that ended in a bribery conviction, said yesterday that he had signed on as Domenici's attorney.
Blalack, a partner in the Washington office of O'Melveny & Myers, also previously advised then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in an investigation related to stock sales. As attorney for Cunningham, Blalack dealt with then-U.S. attorney Carol S. Lam of San Diego, who was among the prosecutors fired en masse in December.
In addition to Battle and Sampson, Democrats plan to issue subpoenas for Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty; Monica Goodling, Justice's White House liaison; and William W. Mercer, the U.S. attorney in Montana, who has been nominated to become associate attorney general.
Battle announced his resignation earlier this week as head of the U.S. attorneys' office at Justice. Sampson, as Gonzales's top aide, was one of the Justice leaders who approved the firings.
Elston was identified by former Little Rock prosecutor Bud Cummins as issuing a warning to him about speaking to reporters or testifying in Congress about the firings. Elston denied any intimidation, writing in a letter to Schumer that he was "shocked and baffled" by the allegation. Congressional staffers said the committee hopes to question Goodling to determine the White House role in the firings. Administration officials have said the White House approved them, but did not initiate them. Two of the fired U.S. attorneys, Daniel Bogden of Las Vegas and Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix, testified that Mercer told each of them they were not fired because of performance problems.
Instead, Bogden testified, Mercer told him "this would be an opportunity to put others into those positions so they could build their résumés and get experience so that for future possibilities of becoming federal judges or other political type positions, they could better handle it."
Roehrkasse said Mercer was focused on "being empathetic" with two friends and that no candidates were "pre-selected" for the vacant U.S. attorney positions.