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Justice Dept. Recognized Prosecutor's Work on Election Fraud Before His Firing

Several former Justice attorneys from the voting rights division, which handles civil violations of the Voting Rights Act but does not prosecute fraud, said the agency has focused intensely on rooting out vote fraud since shortly after the contested 2000 election that brought Bush to office. "Ever since John Ashcroft was the [attorney general], very shortly after he came in, he launched . . . a voting integrity initiative, which was supposed to be half civil rights and half voter fraud, but the focus very clearly was finding and prosecuting voter fraud," said Robert Kengle, a former deputy chief in the voting rights section who resigned in 2005.

Roehrkasse said the department has held five annual voting integrity seminars as part of its focus on fraud. As of last summer, he said, 119 people nationwide had been charged with ballot-fraud offenses and 86 had been convicted.

Democrats contend that the GOP exaggerates the extent of such fraud, and that some eligible voters have been disenfranchised by new voter-identification requirements and other election changes pushed through by Republicans.

In New Mexico and Washington state, Republicans and their allies complained to Justice that the U.S. attorneys were resisting election fraud investigations or prosecutions, according to interviews and government e-mail messages released last week.

In May 2005, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative group based in Olympia, Wash., urged Justice to investigate McKay for misconduct. In a three-page letter to the department's inspector general, the foundation contended that McKay, who comes from a prominent local Republican family, "has committed malfeasance by systematically refusing to act on evidence of election fraud delivered to his office."

Jonathan Bechtle, director of Evergreen's voter integrity project, said he thinks the inspector general turned over the complaint to the Justice office that oversees U.S. attorneys. But he added: "I couldn't get any information out of them as to the conclusion."

Evergreen and several GOP leaders in Washington alleged fraud in the gubernatorial election, in which Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared the winner by 129 votes after three recounts. They were angry that McKay did not impanel a grand jury after a preliminary inquiry by his office and the FBI.

McKay told reporters that during an interview last September for a possible nomination to become a federal judge, then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers asked him why he had "mishandled" the governor's race. He was not nominated.

In the interview, McKay said he had sent Justice a "closeout" memo detailing the steps taken in the preliminary inquiry and recommending that the case be closed, and he never heard back. "We had lots of instances of incompetent handling of an election," he said, including elections officials who mistakenly sent ballots to 1,000 convicted felons. "What we didn't find was a criminal act."

In the New Mexico case, two prominent Republican attorneys, Mickey Barnett and Patrick J. Rogers, met last June with Gonzales's senior counsel, Monica Goodling, to complain that Iglesias was inattentive to voter fraud. Goodling met with them after a colleague sent her a note saying, "It is sensitive -- perhaps you should do it," an internal e-mail exchange shows.

Iglesias said the fraud allegations are baseless. He formed a bipartisan task force to examine possible vote fraud in September 2004 -- two months before that fall's elections -- after hearing reports of "lots of low-level fraud going on. . . . I figured where there was smoke, there was fire. I wanted to sound a message: We need to have integrity in our election process."

A toll-free telephone number set up by the task force and operated by the FBI generated about 100 calls, three or four of which involved possible violations, Iglesias said. He said he considered prosecuting one case involving a woman signing up voters who put false information on registrations. But, Iglesias said, the case had "evidence problems" that made it difficult to prove the woman was trying to skew the election's outcome.

He said he conferred with the chief of the election-crimes branch of the Justice Department's public integrity section, who was "very lukewarm. So we kind of, in collaboration . . . decided to shut it down."

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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