By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 14, 2007
Nearly half the U.S. attorneys slated for removal by the administration last year were targets of Republican complaints that they were lax on voter fraud, including efforts by presidential adviser Karl Rove to encourage more prosecutions of election- law violations, according to new documents and interviews.
Of the 12 U.S. attorneys known to have been dismissed or considered for removal last year, five were identified by Rove or other administration officials as working in districts that were trouble spots for voter fraud -- Kansas City, Mo.; Milwaukee; New Mexico; Nevada; and Washington state. Four of the five prosecutors in those districts were dismissed.
It has been clear for months that the administration's eagerness to launch voter-fraud prosecutions played a role in some of the firings, but recent testimony, documents and interviews show the issue was more central than previously known. The new details include the names of additional prosecutors who were targeted and other districts that were of concern, as well as previously unknown information about the White House's role.
The Justice Department demanded that one U.S. attorney, Todd P. Graves of Kansas City, resign in January 2006, several months after he refused to sign off on a Justice lawsuit involving the state's voter rolls, Graves said last week. U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic of Milwaukee also was targeted last fall after complaints from Rove that he was not doing enough about voter fraud. But he was spared because Justice officials feared that removing him might cause political problems on Capitol Hill, according to interviews of Justice aides conducted by congressional staff members.
"There is reason for worry and suspicion at this point as to whether voting fraud played an inappropriate role in personnel decisions by the department," said Daniel P. Tokaji, an election law specialist at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering to replace U.S. attorneys viewed as weak on voter fraud, from state Republican parties to the White House, is one element of a nationwide partisan brawl over voting rights in recent years. Ever since the contested 2000 presidential election, which ended in a Florida recount and intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, both political parties have attempted to use election law to tip close contests to their advantage.
Through legislation and litigation, Republicans have pressed for voter-identification requirements and other rules to clamp down on what they assert is widespread fraud by ineligible voters. Starting early in the Bush administration, the Justice Department has emphasized increasing prosecutions of fraudulent voting.
Democrats counter that such fraud is rare and that GOP efforts are designed to suppress legitimate votes by minorities, the elderly and recent immigrants, who are likely to support Democratic candidates. A draft report last year by the Election Assistance Commission, a bipartisan government panel that conducts election research, said that "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud."
That conclusion was played down in the panel's final report, which said only that the seriousness of the problem was debatable.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales reflected the prevailing GOP view when he testified last week before the House Judiciary Committee, saying that the Justice Department has "an obligation" to prosecute voter fraud.
"[T]his notion that somehow voter fraud is a dirty word, I don't understand it, because you're talking about people stealing votes, canceling out legitimate votes," Gonzales said.
The new links between GOP voter-fraud complaints and the firings of the U.S. attorneys follow earlier disclosures that the White House, including President Bush, passed along complaints to Gonzales about alleged voting irregularities in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Mexico, where prosecutor David C. Iglesias was fired.
White House officials also criticized John McKay, then the U.S. attorney in Seattle, for not pursuing an investigation after the disputed 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington state. McKay, who was fired, has said that claim was baseless.
However, it was not clear until last week that Biskupic came close to being fired, that Graves had been asked to resign or that Justice officials had highlighted Nevada as a problem area for voter fraud. New information also emerged showing the extent to which the White House encouraged investigations of election fraud within weeks of November balloting.
Rove, in particular, was preoccupied with pressing Gonzales and his aides about alleged voting problems in a handful of battleground states, according to testimony and documents.
Last October, just weeks before the midterm elections, Rove's office sent a 26-page packet to Gonzales's office containing precinct-level voting data about Milwaukee. A Justice aide told congressional investigators that he quickly put the package aside, concerned that taking action would violate strict rules against investigations shortly before elections, according to statements disclosed this week.
That aide, senior counselor Matthew Friedrich, turned over notes to Congress that detailed a telephone conversation about voter fraud with another Justice official, Benton Campbell, chief of staff for the Criminal Division. Friedrich had asked Campbell for his assessment of Rove's complaints about problems in New Mexico, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, according to a congressional aide familiar with Friedrich's remarks.
The notes show that Campbell also identified Nevada as a problem district. Daniel G. Bogden of Las Vegas was among the nine U.S. attorneys known to have been removed from their jobs last year.
Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School who runs an election law blog, said that "there's no question that Karl Rove and other political operatives" urged Justice officials to apply pressure on U.S. attorneys to pursue voter-fraud allegations in parts of the country that were critical to the GOP.
Hasen said it remains unclear, however, "whether they believed there was a lot of fraud and U.S. attorneys would ferret it out, or whether they believed there wasn't a lot of fraud but the allegations would serve political purposes."
According to Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Barnard College who co-wrote a recent study of federal prosecution of election fraud, the states in which U.S. attorneys were dismissed, or put on a tentative firing list, include five of nearly a dozen states that Rove and other Republicans last year identified as election battlegrounds.
In some cases, Justice officials have cited conflicts with the chief prosecutors in those places that were unrelated to election fraud.
Minnesota's longtime federal prosecutor, Thomas Heffelfinger, resigned early in 2006 and has said his departure was voluntary, but sources say his name was included on a January 2006 firing list. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) sent Gonzales a letter last week seeking documents about Heffelfinger's relationship with department officials, including efforts to enforce election laws in that state.