Prosecutors Say They Felt Pressured, Threatened
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 official 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. attorney 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 gubernatorial 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 e-mail made public yesterday that the official 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 e-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 actions taken. It shows a total disregard for the institution of the U.S. attorney's offices and what they stand for."