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Panel to summon two more ousted U.S. attorneys

March 06, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats plan to subpoena two more U.S. attorneys who were recently dismissed, as congressional leaders gear up for House and Senate hearings today to determine whether the Bush administration played politics with the firings.

Meanwhile, a left-leaning congressional watchdog group on Monday called for a Senate ethics investigation into Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) for allegedly interfering with the work of the U.S. attorney in his state. That would be a violation of Senate rules. And the Justice Department revealed Monday that Domenici telephoned Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales or his deputy four times in the last two years to complain about the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, and whether he was "up for the job."

Iglesias was fired in December.

A total of six former federal prosecutors are being summoned to the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a House judiciary subcommittee, as the issue takes on new importance in Congress.

Democrats contend the prosecutors -- all Republicans -- were fired for political reasons. But the Republican administration has said it has the authority to make personnel changes it deems appropriate, without congressional interference, and has denied that any of the six were let go because of politics.

The use of subpoenas marks the first time the new Democratic-controlled Congress has seized that extraordinary power in its attempt to oversee the administration. The issue is all the more volatile because it involves a senior Republican senator, Domenici, and could pull in a senior Republican member of the House, Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico.

Four former prosecutors were already subpoenaed for the House hearing: Iglesias, Carol Lam of San Diego, John McKay of Seattle, and H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Little Rock, Ark. All four are to appear at both hearings.

The House subcommittee plans to issue subpoenas this morning for two more: Daniel G. Bogden of Nevada and Paul K. Charlton of Arizona. House officials said Bogden and Charlton agreed to appear at the hearing this afternoon.

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), chairwoman of the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, said the subpoenas were meant "to shed additional light on the Bush administration's apparent decision to pursue a political agenda through the selection of federal prosecutors."

Eight prosecutors have been dismissed by the Department of Justice.

Iglesias' case has raised the greatest concern.

He has said he cannot understand why he was removed, and has added that he found "troubling" a phone call from Domenici, just before last year's midterm election, to inquire about an ongoing criminal investigation of New Mexico Democrats.

At the time, Domenici's Republican colleague in the House, Wilson, was in a tight campaign for reelection. (She won in a squeaker.) Some Democrats speculate that Domenici and Wilson believed last-minute indictments against New Mexico Democrats would boost her chances.

On Sunday, Domenici acknowledged that he did call Iglesias last year, but only to ask how long the investigation would continue. "It was a very brief conversation," the senator said.

On Monday, the Justice Department revealed that starting in September 2005, Domenici called Gonzales or his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, four times to inquire about Iglesias.

The last call was in October, just before Wilson's reelection, when he made another "similar and very brief call" to McNulty about Iglesias' performance, said Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Roehrkasse said that "at no time in these calls did the senator mention the public corruption case" in New Mexico.

Wilson has refused to discuss the issue.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which characterizes itself as progressive, filed a formal complaint Monday against Domenici, asking the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate. "He appears to have violated the prohibition on contacting agencies based on political considerations," said the watchdog group's executive director, Melanie Sloan.

But others wonder if it isn't the Democrats who are playing politics.

William B. Canfield, a conservative lawyer and a former Senate ethics committee staffer, said that Domenici, a senator since 1973, would be "too sophisticated a guy to have said anything to suggest he was improperly leaning on the U.S. attorney."

"U.S. attorneys probably take phone calls from members on a regular basis," Canfield added. "And there's nothing in the ethics rules in the Senate that says you can't make calls for a status report on where an investigation is going."

Also Monday, the administration announced that Michael A. Battle, director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, which oversees the federal prosecutors, would leave this month. Democrats wondered about the timing of Battle's departure; Roehrkasse said it was voluntary.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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