House Judiciary Chairman Says U.S. Attorney Firings Were ÂPetty Patronage'
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
The dismissal of U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico in December 2006 followed extensive communication among lawyers and political aides in the White House who hashed over complaints about his work on public corruption cases against Democrats, according to newly released e-mails and transcripts of closed-door House testimony by former Bush counsel Harriet Miers and political chief Karl Rove.
A campaign to oust Iglesias intensified after state GOP officials and Republican members of the congressional delegation apparently concluded that he was not pursuing the cases against Democrats in a way that could help then-Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R) in a tight reelection race in New Mexico, according to interviews and Bush White House e-mails released Tuesday by congressional investigators. The documents place the genesis of Iglesias's dismissal earlier than previously known.
The disclosures mark the end of a 2 1/2 -year investigation by the House Judiciary Committee, which sued to gain access to White House documents in a dispute that challenged the Bush administration's claims of executive power.
House Judiciary Chairman John M. Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) on Tuesday characterized the role of Bush White House figures in the firing of Iglesias and eight other U.S. attorneys as improper.
"Under the Bush regime, honest and well-performing U.S. attorneys were fired for petty patronage, political horse-trading, and, in the most egregious case of political abuse of the U.S. attorney corps -- that of U.S. attorney Iglesias -- because he refused to use his office to help Republicans win elections," Conyers said.
In a statement Tuesday, Rove asserted that he "never sought to influence the conduct of any prosecution" and did not decide which prosecutors were fired. He also accused Democrats of making "false accusations and partisan innuendoes."
An attorney for Miers did not return calls seeking comment, but Miers told House investigators that the prosecutors were not fired for improper reasons.
In their testimony in June and July, both Miers and Rove said they could not recall key incidents, according to the transcripts. In the course of her 10-hour deposition, Miers said she could not recall events almost 150 times. Rove said he received hundreds of e-mails a day, so "asking me to remember replies is like asking me to remember a raindrop in a thunderstorm."
The House panel focused most of its attention on Iglesias, a rising star in New Mexico who came to displease his political patrons. Miers told investigators that Rove called her in September 2006, "agitated" about the slow pace of public corruption cases against Democrats and weak efforts to pursue voter-fraud cases in the state. In the call, Miers said, Rove described Iglesias as a "serious problem" and said he wanted "something done" about it. Miers testified that she called then-Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty to pass along the concerns.
According to e-mails and interviews with people familiar with the investigation, GOP figures in New Mexico thought that if Iglesias pursued public corruption cases against Democrats, it could help Wilson in her run for reelection.
A mid-October 2006 e-mail chain that began with Wilson indirectly criticized Iglesias for not bringing public corruption prosecutions in the run-up to the midterm elections. Attached was a news report about an FBI investigation of then-Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).
The same day, Steve Bell, chief of staff to then-Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), e-mailed Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings, to say that it "seems like other U.S. attorneys can do their work even in election season. . . . And the FBI has already admitted they have turned over their evidence to the USA in NM and are merely awaiting his action."
Jennings forwarded the messages to Rove, saying, "Steve Bell sent this email . . . essentially saying that the US Attorney in PA has no trouble going after Weldon, so why should the US Attorney in New Mexico be shy about doing his job on [Patricia] Madrid." Madrid was Wilson's Democratic opponent in the 2006 congressional race.
A few weeks after this e-mail, Iglesias's name was placed on the final firing list.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Wilson said her October 2006 e-mail dealt with an unrelated subject and had nothing to do with the U.S. attorney in New Mexico and cases he might have been pursuing against Democrats.
"My e-mail is only one sentence long and does not relate in any way" to Iglesias, Wilson said. "In early October 2006, we made a strategic decision to campaign on national security and competence," not public corruption.
In a follow-up statement, Wilson said that the House findings were "incorrect in several important respects" and that investigators had "failed to inquire about or review basic facts."
Domenici -- who accepted a Senate ethics reprimand last year for calling Iglesias to ask about the timing of prosecutions before the 2006 election -- pursued his complaints at the highest levels of the government, according to the testimony. The longtime senator, who has since retired, wanted to contact President George W. Bush directly, Rove testified to the House panel. But Rove told investigators that he "discouraged" the senator, who went on to phone White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten in October 2006, according to White House call logs.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy continues to probe whether false-statements or obstruction-of-justice charges could be lodged against anyone in connection with the dismissals and previous congressional testimony under oath about them.
In 2007, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and his deputy D. Kyle Sampson resigned, in part because of the political furor over the prosecutor dismissals.
The plan to fire U.S. attorneys raised alarm bells among some in the Bush White House days after the dismissal list arrived from the Justice Department in late 2006. Deputy press secretary Dana Perino told White House colleagues in e-mails that she needed "an oxygen tank" and a "double shot" of air after aides reported that some of the prosecutors had been conducting politically sensitive investigations of Republicans at the time of their dismissal.
U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton of Arizona had been moving toward an indictment of then-Rep. Rick Renzi (R) in that state, while Carol Lam in San Diego had expanded her probe of Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) to include another Republican congressman from that state as well as former CIA operative Kyle "Dusty" Foggo. Cunningham and Foggo since have been convicted of crimes. Renzi has been indicted and awaits trial.
Despite allegations by Democrats, the House investigation did not uncover smoking-gun documents or testimony showing that Lam and Charlton were removed as part of a broader effort to interfere with investigations of prominent Republicans. Rove told lawmakers: "I know they would not enter into the president's thinking at all. Because I know how he felt about both Duke Cunningham and Rick Renzi's behavior."