By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007
One of the U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration after Republican complaints that he neglected to prosecute voter fraud had been heralded for his expertise in that area by the Justice Department, which twice selected him to train other federal prosecutors to pursue election crimes.
David C. Iglesias, who was dismissed as U.S. attorney for New Mexico in December, was one of two chief federal prosecutors invited to teach at a "voting integrity symposium" in October 2005. The symposium was sponsored by Justice's public integrity and civil rights sections and was attended by more than 100 prosecutors from around the country, according to an account by Iglesias that a department spokesman confirmed.
Iglesias, a Republican, said in an interview that he and the U.S. attorney from Milwaukee, Steven M. Biskupic, were chosen as trainers because they were the only ones identified as having created task forces to examine allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 elections. An agenda lists them as the panelists for a session on such task forces at the two-day seminar, which featured a luncheon speech by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
According to Iglesias, the agency invited him back as a trainer last summer, just months before a Justice official telephoned to fire him. He said he could not attend the second time because of his obligations as an officer in the Navy Reserve.
The fact that Justice officials held out Iglesias to his colleagues as an exemplar of good work on voter fraud conflicts with an explanation offered last week by a senior aide to President Bush that eight U.S. attorneys had been removed in part because of complaints that some had been lax in pursuing election fraud. Bush told Gonzales last fall that he was aware of such complaints, said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, who cited New Mexico as one of three states in which the complaints had arisen.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) cited suspected voter fraud in complaints about Iglesias to the Justice Department, officials have said.
Iglesias and another U.S. attorney fired in December, John McKay of Seattle, said they were surprised by the White House's explanation because they had coordinated closely with Justice attorneys in handling allegations of fraudulent voting in recent elections. Justice officials had never expressed disagreement with their judgment, the two said.
McKay said in an interview that his staff had been "pretty much in daily contact" with the attorney in charge of election crimes in the department's public integrity section during a preliminary inquiry into alleged fraud in Washington state's 2004 gubernatorial election -- contact that continued when he concluded no federal crimes had occurred.
A spokesman for the department, Brian Roehrkasse, said that "as a matter of Justice Department policy, U.S. attorneys do consult with the public integrity section on election fraud matters," although he declined to comment on specific consultation that may have taken place with Iglesias or McKay.
Roehrkasse confirmed that the department twice invited Iglesias to speak at the voter fraud seminars but said the invitations were in 2004 and 2005 -- not shortly before his firing last year. Iglesias said he could not have been invited in 2004 because he had not yet established the task force that prompted the invitation.
As the controversy over the firings escalates, the circumstances of Iglesias's and McKay's dismissals demonstrate the pressure federal prosecutors have faced over election fraud inside the Justice Department and among Republican activists in swing states.
Among Republicans, "you had this widespread belief that voter fraud exists, combined with close elections," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a group that monitors electoral reforms. "They were either pushing the U.S. attorney or pushing the administration to push the U.S. attorney to investigate."
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.