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Prosecutors Testify On Their Firings

One tells investigators he `felt sick' after calls by GOP lawmakers.

March 07, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A fired federal prosecutor described Tuesday how two Republican lawmakers from New Mexico made him feel "sick" after they called him -- in one case at his home -- to ask about criminal charges against Democrats last fall, just as one of the officeholders faced a tight reelection race.

The former prosecutor, David C. Iglesias, told congressional committees investigating the firing of him and seven other U.S. attorneys that in mid-October, Rep. Heather A. Wilson grilled him over the phone for information about possible sealed indictments in a call to his hotel room in Washington.

Two weeks later, Iglesias said, Sen. Pete V. Domenici called him at home, expressed disgust that there would be no indictments against Democrats in New Mexico before the November election, and slammed down the phone.

"I felt sick afterwards," Iglesias said. "I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these cases moving."

The testimony of Iglesias and five other former U.S. attorneys ratcheted up the controversy over the Bush administration's motives in replacing them. Two Democratic-controlled congressional committees are investigating whether any lawmakers violated ethics rules in pushing for their removal.

In a rare spectacle, the ousted prosecutors appeared at a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill, all of them responding to subpoenas and sharing their disbelief and frustration over how they were abruptly terminated by Justice Department officials.

The prosecutors said they could see no clear reason why they were let go other than political motives, noting that supervisors in Washington had praised their work and given them glowing performance evaluations since President Bush took office in 2001.

One of them, Carol Lam of San Diego, successfully prosecuted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), yet was dismissed shortly after indicting two of his partners in a sweeping bribery case.

"In most of our cases," Lam said, speaking for the group, "we were given little or no information" about why the firings occurred.

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and Justice Department officials have strongly defended the terminations, saying they were made because the prosecutors had not met expectations or simply to make room for other individuals to have a shot at the traditionally plum jobs.

Administration officials also have noted that U.S. attorneys are political appointees -- a fact clearly understood by the fired prosecutors -- who serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time for any reason.

"The department stands by the decisions" to fire the eight, William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law.

"To be clear," he said, "it was for reasons related to policy, priorities and management that these U.S. attorneys were asked to resign."

He said the Justice Department "would have preferred" that the dismissals not become such a hot political issue. "In hindsight," he said, "perhaps this situation could have been handled better."

'Threat' described

The firings have left most of the eight prosecutors angry. At Tuesday's hearings, H.E. "Bud" Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., said he was pushed aside to make room for Timothy Griffin, a Republican operative for chief White House political advisor Karl Rove.

Cummins also charged that the administration had continued to hound the prosecutors. He said a top Justice Department official warned him last month against talking to the media or Congress about the firings -- a "threat" he passed on to his other former colleagues.

John McKay, the fired prosecutor in Seattle, said he was incensed by the requests not to go public.

Looking around the open hearing room, he told a large group of reporters and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: "I did not feel at all intimidated. Instead, it made me angry. Hence my presence here."

McKay revealed a new allegation of political pressure. He said that in 2004, during a series of vote recounts in which a Democrat was narrowly elected governor of Washington state, the then-chief of staff for Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) called him and began inquiring about the status of a federal investigation into vote fraud.

McKay said he quickly cut off the caller, whom he identified as Ed Cassidy, because he felt the conversation might constitute obstruction of justice. "I was concerned and dismayed by the call," McKay said.

Hastings, who in 2005 and '06 chaired the House Ethics Committee and remains its ranking GOP member, said Cassidy's call and the phone conversation were "entirely appropriate."

"It was a simple inquiry and nothing more," Hastings said. Of McKay, he said, "I simply cannot understand why he didn't just pick up the phone to make me aware of his concern about my aide's call."

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