By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009
Political adviser Karl Rove and other high-ranking figures in the Bush White House played a greater role than previously understood in the firing of federal prosecutors almost three years ago, according to e-mails obtained by The Washington Post, in a scandal that led to mass Justice Department resignations and an ongoing criminal probe.
The e-mails and new interviews with key participants reflect contacts among Rove, aides in the Bush political affairs office and White House lawyers about the dismissal of three of the nine U.S. attorneys fired in 2006: New Mexico's David C. Iglesias, the focus of ire from GOP lawmakers; Missouri's Todd Graves, who had clashed with one of Rove's former clients; and Arkansas's Bud Cummins, who was pushed out to make way for a Rove protégé.
The documents and interviews provide new information about efforts by political aides in the Bush White House, for example, to push a former colleague as a favored candidate for one of the U.S. attorney posts. They also reflect the intensity of efforts by lawmakers and party officials in New Mexico to unseat the top prosecutor there. Rove described himself as merely passing along complaints by senators and state party officials to White House lawyers.
The e-mails emerged as Rove finished his second day of closed-door-testimony Thursday about the firings to the House Judiciary Committee. For years, Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers had rejected efforts by lawmakers to obtain their testimony and their correspondence about the issue, citing executive privilege. The House sued, igniting a court fight that was resolved this year after discussions among lawyers for former president George W. Bush and President Obama.
Robert D. Luskin, Rove's attorney, said, "I certainly can confirm that Karl answered all of the committee's questions fully and truthfully. His answers should put to rest any suspicion that he acted improperly."
Rove and Miers, as well as other Bush administration figures, still could be called to testify at a public hearing on Capitol Hill. Transcripts of their behind-closed-doors accounts could be released by the House Judiciary panel as early as August under the terms of the court settlement.
At the same time, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora R. Dannehy continues to investigate whether the firings of the prosecutors and the political firestorm that followed could form the basis of possible criminal charges such as making false statements or obstruction of justice. Rove and Miers each met with Dannehy this year.
In an interview with The Post and the New York Times this month, Rove described himself as a "conduit" of grievances from lawmakers and others about the performance of home-state prosecutors. The e-mails and interview were provided on the condition that they not be released until Rove's House testimony concluded. He said he did not recall several events because of his busy job and asserted that he had done nothing to influence criminal cases, an allegation by Democrats that has dogged him for years. Luskin, Rove's attorney, asserted that "there was never any point where Karl was trying to get a particular prosecution advanced or retarded."
"Yes, I was a recipient of complaints, and I passed them on to the counsel's office to be passed onto Justice," Rove said. The complaints about weak enforcement of voter fraud laws and public corruption "had the sound of authenticity to me. If what I'm told is accurate, it's really troublesome."
Rove added that he had "no recollection" of how he learned of the firing of Iglesias, who had been a rising star in New Mexico. A lengthy report released last year by the Justice Department inspector general said that Rove told then-Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) at a White House party in mid-November 2006 that "that decision has already been made, he's gone." But Justice Department lawyers did not send a dismissal list to the White House until hours after the party, the report said.
Complaints about Iglesias began at least a year before he was relieved of his job, according to documents reviewed by The Post. Then-Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), his chief of staff, Steve Bell, and GOP lawyers in the state lobbied aggressively to oust the prosecutor. But the activity accelerated in fall 2006.
Responding to questions about another little-understood event, Rove told reporters in the interview this month that he had not seen a letter that Justice Department officials prepared and sent to the Senate on Feb. 23, 2007. The letter stated that "the department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint [protégé] Mr. Griffin" to a top job in Little Rock.
The Justice Department later retracted the statement, which the inspector general concluded was "misleading."
Rove said that he had "nothing" to do with the letter, that he did not draft it and did not approve its contents. "I'm not even sure I was still there at that point." Rove did not leave the White House for six more months, in late August 2007.
But internal White House correspondence dating to two years earlier suggests that job prospects for Timothy Griffin, who had worked for Rove in the administration, were a hot topic of conversation. In a Feb. 11, 2005, e-mail, Rove wrote to deputy Sara Taylor: "Give him options. Keep pushing for Justice and let him decide. I want him on the team."
Then-White House counsel Miers e-mailed Taylor a month later, writing, "Sara, Karl asked me to forward you a list of locations where we may consider replacing the USAs."
Rove suggested Little Rock, where Cummins was U.S. attorney, as a post for Griffin, reminding Miers in March 2005 that "that's where he's from." The next day, Sara Taylor forwarded communications about Griffin to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who wrote, "let me know his reaction," according to the e-mails.
In the interview, Rove said he made no secret to anyone of his support for Griffin and cited published reports that Cummins was considering stepping down.
Graves, the U.S. attorney in Missouri, was removed after staff members of Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond (R) repeatedly complained to the White House, according to interviews and the inspector general. Rove, who had done political consulting work for Bond, said in the interview that he did not play any role in Graves's dismissal, including transmitting complaints.
The role of Bush in the dismissals gets occasional mention in the e-mails and other documents. The Justice Department inspector general's report said that Bush and Rove talked with Alberto R. Gonzales, then the attorney general, in October 2006 about voting fraud, including problems in New Mexico. And in an e-mail in mid-November 2006, as the firing plan accelerated, Gonzales's chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, asked lawyers at the White House, "Who will determine whether this requires the President's attention."
Rove, in the interview, said he wasn't certain about how Bush was informed. "I wouldn't know whether it ultimately went to him. Maybe Harriet talked to him about it. I'm sure they did walk in at the end and say, 'Mr. President, we want to make a change here.' . . . This is not at the top of my agenda. I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'What must I do today to advance the case of the U.S. attorneys?' I've got a few things on my plate."