Justice Official 'Horrified' Phone Call Was Seen as Threat
Monday, March 12, 2007
Until last Tuesday, Michael J. Elston was the happily anonymous chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty.
But then a former U.S. attorney told Congress that Elston had warned him and other fired prosecutors to stay quiet or risk retaliation from the Justice Department.
The testimony from former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock was one of a string of damning accounts to emerge from the firings of eight federal prosecutors. The firings have prompted outrage in Congress and moves to limit the attorney general's power to appoint replacements.
Elston said in an interview that he is "horrified" by the accusation, portraying it as an unfortunate misunderstanding fueled by rising tensions over the firings.
"By no means did I have any message in mind," Elston said. "I think he misinterpreted what I was saying, and I'm very sorry that occurred."
Elston, who worked as a federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia and Rockford, Ill., said the Feb. 20 conversation was the last of several calls between him and Cummins since the December firings.
Elston said the talks were cordial and focused on Cummins's concern about being put in the same category as the other dismissed attorneys, who were fired Dec. 7. Cummins, by contrast, was notified of his dismissal last summer; his job was later given to a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove. McNulty made that distinction clear last month.
The disputed conversation came two days after a Washington Post article quoted Cummins as criticizing McNulty's comments that the other attorneys had "performance-related" problems. Elston said he called to raise a concern about part of the article.
In testimony and in an e-mail to fellow attorneys, Cummins said there was a "threatening undercurrent" to the call. He said Elston warned that the Justice Department would retaliate if the attorneys talked to the media or volunteered to testify in Congress.
Elston said he never intended such a message and recalls only expressing regret that the attorneys issue is "playing out in public."
Meanwhile, the White House said Rove does not recall telling the chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party late last year that another of the fired U.S. attorneys, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, was "gone." The chairman, Allen Weh, attributed the comment to Rove in a story Saturday by McClatchy Newspapers.
Rove did pass along specific complaints about Iglesias to the Justice Department and the White House counsel's office, spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.