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THE NATION

Panel widens prosecutor firing inquiry

The House committee asks the White House for documents and interviews with aides.

Confrontation Possible

March 10, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee on Friday broadened its investigation into the firing of eight top federal prosecutors, calling on the White House to provide legal documents and make current and former senior officials available for interviews -- including former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers.

The Democratic-controlled panel is investigating whether the firings in December were part of a political vendetta against prosecutors who did not bring criminal cases that would have hurt Democratic candidates in last year's midterm election. There is also concern that Washington officials may have imposed political or ideological litmus tests on prosecutorial decisions.

Specifically, the committee is requesting interviews with Miers and White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley, and is asking the administration "to produce relevant documents, including White House communications on the firings with the Justice Department and members of Congress."

Two of the dismissed prosecutors -- David C. Iglesias of Albuquerque and John McKay of Seattle -- told the committee this week of phone calls from Republican lawmakers inquiring about possible investigations into Democratic activities at the time of the November election.

Another fired U.S. attorney, H.E. "Bud" Cummins III of Little Rock, Ark., said he was told by Washington that he was being moved out to make room for Timothy Griffin, a Republican operative for chief White House political advisor Karl Rove.

Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said that Democrats believed the Justice Department had given conflicting reasons for the terminations and that the panel wanted to "get a clear and credible answer from the Bush administration on who made the decision to fire these U.S. attorneys and why they did it."

"We want to make sure," Conyers said, "that those who would contaminate our justice system with partisan politics are held accountable."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the administration would review the committee's request. "I'm not in a position to comment on how we will address it," he said. "But we certainly will respond."

Conyers' query was sent to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding. The unusual step could set up a confrontation between the two branches of government. The Bush White House has often taken a tough stance on protecting the confidentiality of internal legal documents and its decision-making process.

"It poses a tricky question," said Carl Tobias, a law school professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "Miers has left. And my sense is that Fred Fielding is a real expert on this type of issue and will attempt to craft a reasonable compromise rather than fight Congress."

Fielding has more than three decades of experience with the legal relationship between presidents and Congress. He served in the White House counsel's office under President Nixon during Watergate; he was also White House counsel under President Reagan.

Conyers, in his letter to Fielding, cited one area the committee members want to explore.

He noted that McKay testified this week that Miers personally told him he had "mishandled" a situation in Washington state by not investigating voter fraud in last year's gubernatorial race.

"This testimony," Conyers said, "raises serious issues concerning possible undue influence and obstruction of justice."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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