Fired U.S. Attorneys to Defend Records

By JENNIFER TALHELM Tuesday, March 06, 2007

WASHINGTON - Six former U.S. attorneys said they got little or no information about why they were fired, as another Republican lawmaker reportedly acknowledged contacting one of the federal prosecutors about an investigation.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., had complained repeatedly to high-level Justice Department officials about New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias, the department said. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., late Monday said that she, too, had spoken with Iglesias about one of his pending cases.

But like Domenici, Wilson denied pressuring the New Mexico prosecutor, The Washington Post reported in Tuesday's editions.

Democratic lawmakers want to know whether the Bush administration dismissed the U.S. attorneys for political reasons. As many as six of eight former prosecutors dismissed in recent months were expected to tell House and Senate committees Tuesday that they were given little or no information about the reason for their firings.

"When we had new ideas or differing opinions, we assumed that such thoughts would always be welcomed by the (Justice) department and could be freely and openly debated within the halls of that great institution," six of the attorneys said in a joint statement released ahead of the hearings.

Iglesias has also said he would relate details of a conversation with two members of Congress who he says pressured him to rush indictments in an investigation into an alleged Democratic kickback scheme that could have helped Republicans in the November 2006 elections.

Domenici said over the weekend that he had contacted Iglesias in October 2006 to ask about progress of the probe, though he denied putting any pressure on the prosecutor.

The Senate ethics manual advises lawmakers to refrain from speaking to court officers about specific proceedings until after they are resolved.

Domenici's contact with Iglesias is now the subject of an ethics charge. Iglesias' testimony will help determine the next step in the probe, filed Monday by a watchdog group. It is still unclear what action the Senate Ethics Committee will take.

In a statement released Monday to The Washington Post, Wilson acknowledged contacting Iglesias, and said: "I did not ask about the timing of any indictments and I did not tell Mr. Iglesias what course of action I thought he should take or pressure him in any way. The conversation was brief and professional."

She said the department dismissed Iglesias "without input from me."

The Bush administration has said eight prosecutors were told to leave, all but one for performance-related reasons.

Democrats say they fear that the White House is using a provision of the antiterror USA Patriot Act to bypass the Senate confirmation process for U.S. attorneys and reward political allies with the plum jobs.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees and can be fired for any reason, or none at all. But the firings have become a stress point of a power struggle between the Republican Bush administration and newly ascendant Democrats in Congress.

House Judiciary Committee Democrats on Monday asked the Justice Department to provide details of communications between the department and lawmakers about the ousted U.S. attorneys, the identities of White House and administration officials who decided which prosecutors to fire, and information about what the dismissed prosecutors were told about why they were terminated.

Domenici called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his deputy four times, questioning whether Iglesias was "up to the job," department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty singled out two U.S. attorneys, Iglesias and Carol Lam of California, during a briefing for senators last month about the firings, saying they had generated "extensive congressional concern," according to a senior administration official who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak on the record about that briefing.

The Justice Department released letters from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., to Gonzales and Lam complaining about Lam's prosecution record with illegal immigrants, and other matters.

Feinstein has strongly defended Lam in public. Spokesman Scott Gerber said Monday that after she wrote the letter complaining about her, Feinstein learned that Lam had made changes and the issues were being addressed.

Domenici said Sunday that he recommended the Justice Department replace Iglesias because he had grown frustrated with the New Mexico U.S. attorney's office. Domenici said Iglesias' office seemed incapable of moving quickly on several cases.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Justice Department said that Michael Battle, a senior official who directed the department's Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and had personally informed the ousted prosecutors of their removal, would leave his post March 16. The department said Battle's departure was not connected to the U.S. attorneys controversy.