By Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 26, 2007
The top aide to Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) called the office of Arizona's U.S. attorney about six weeks before the prosecutor was fired, inquiring about a federal probe into the congressman's role in a land deal that benefited a former business partner and political patron.
The former U.S. attorney, Paul K. Charlton, told House investigators this week that his office alerted the Justice Department's headquarters about the call from Renzi's chief of staff, Brian Murray, because he considered it potentially improper, according to congressional sources who spoke about the probe on the condition of anonymity. Justice rules require prosecutors to report contacts from members of Congress seeking information about investigations.
The incident means that Charlton was the third of eight U.S. attorneys forced to resign last year who had reported to Justice officials that Republican members of Congress or their staffs made inappropriate overtures to their offices about politically sensitive investigations they were supervising.
Yesterday, word of the call to Charlton's chief spokesman further fanned the ire of Democrats conducting a sprawling investigation into the firings.
The developments also deepened the trouble facing Renzi. During the past week, the third-term congressman has temporarily relinquished his seats on three House committees after the FBI raided his wife's insurance business. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has been leading the Senate Judiciary Committee probe of the dismissals, fired off a letter yesterday to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, saying the Renzi case raises "new and serious questions about whether improper political motivations were involved" in Charlton's firing.
In addition, Schumer drew attention to suggestions, first published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, that Justice officials delayed the investigation into Renzi to help him win reelection. "I am troubled by the possibility that the practice of having U.S. attorneys coordinate with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in cases involving lawmakers, which is intended to be a check on politicization, may have been used in this instance for the contrary purpose of influencing a case for political reasons."
Murray issued a three-sentence statement confirming that he had called Charlton's spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, "seeking information about press accounts which appeared just weeks before election-day, alleging a pending indictment." The statement added: "I was called back and told they would not comment."
In October, Web sites and news organizations had begun to report the probe of Renzi by the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI. At the time, the FBI was conducting wiretaps in the case, and the publicity disrupted that surveillance, an official familiar with the probe said.
According to internal Justice documents, Charlton's name first appeared on a list of U.S. attorneys to be fired in a Sept. 13 memo, many months after most of the other chief prosecutors who ultimately would be dismissed on Dec. 7.
Charlton and Hornbuckle declined to comment yesterday.
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse declined to speak specifically about the Renzi case but said Gonzales and his staff have "never interfered with or attempted to influence a criminal prosecution, including a public corruption case, for partisan political reasons."
The former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, David C. Iglesias, has told Congress he felt pressured to speed up an indictment of Democrats during phone calls last October from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.). And former U.S. attorney John McKay of Seattle has said he was called by the chief of staff to Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) about a preliminary inquiry into voter fraud in Washington state.