Democrats issued their first major subpoenas yesterday since taking control of Congress, as a House subcommittee voted to compel testimony from four former U.S. attorneys who were part of a wave of firings by the Justice Department.
The Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law approved the subpoenas for former prosecutors in Arkansas, New Mexico, Seattle and San Diego -- all of whom will be required to appear for testimony at a hearing Tuesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee announced plans for a similar hearing on the same day.
The moves mark the latest escalation in the battle between congressional Democrats and the Justice Department over the controversial dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, at least five of whom were presiding over public corruption probes when they were fired.
"Are these people being removed for doing their job and for it doing it too well?" asked Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the panel, who called the subpoenas "a last resort."
The controversy, which has been simmering for two months, boiled over this week after departing prosecutor David C. Iglesias of New Mexico alleged that two unnamed lawmakers had pressured him to speed up the prosecution of Democrats before the November elections. Iglesias said he believed that complaints from the lawmakers may have led to his dismissal, an allegation the Justice Department has disputed.
The state's top two Democrats, Rep. Tom Udall and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) have denied calling Iglesias. Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) have not responded to requests for comment over the past two days and deflected questions from the Associated Press about the allegations.
"I don't have any comment," Domenici said. "I have no idea what he's talking about."
Wilson referred questions "on that personnel matter" to the Justice Department.
Sanchez said any such contacts by a member of Congress would likely be in violation of House and Senate ethics rules that restrict such "ex parte communications" during ongoing criminal investigations.
Iglesias's office was conducting a probe into allegations involving construction contracts and a prominent Democratic former state senator.
At the time of the alleged phone calls, Wilson, a close ally of Domenici's, was in a tight reelection battle with then-state Attorney General Patricia Madrid. Wilson won by fewer than 2,000 votes.
Iglesias said yesterday that he will identify the lawmakers only if compelled by a subpoena.
"I fear retaliation," said Iglesias, a Republican and former military defense lawyer who served as a model for a character in the movie "A Few Good Men." "This is a small state and there are not too many employment opportunities, and I fear they will blacklist me."
At least four of the other U.S. attorneys were presiding over probes targeting Republican politicians at the time they were notified of their firing.
Although a separate House subcommittee has compelled testimony in a little-noticed drug inquiry, the prosecutors case marks the first major use of subpoena power by the new Democratic majority.
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that the department has been "very forthcoming" with Congress about the dismissals and that any allegations that prosecutors were removed to interfere with investigations are "completely wrong."
Justice officials have said Iglesias and six others were fired for "performance-related" reasons and have denied that any were targeted to disrupt public corruption probes. Officials have acknowledged that an eighth prosecutor, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, was removed to make way for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove.
Cummins and former U.S. attorney John McKay of Seattle said in interviews that they told lawmakers they will not testify unless subpoenas are issued.
"I wanted it clear that I wasn't volunteering to testify and I wasn't trying to affirmatively stir up trouble for everybody," said Cummins, who left in December. "If they would like to hear one of the few facts I have, I'm happy to tell them."
The other former prosecutor scheduled to testify, Carol S. Lam of San Diego, did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.
No Republicans showed up for the unanimous panel vote on issuing the subpoenas. The Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), later called the session "political grandstanding."