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U.S. Attorneys Testify About Their Firings

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

One thing about getting fired is that you have time for other things in your life. And some former U.S. attorneys now have time to inform Congress how they were fired by the Bush administration. One says he felt threatened for speaking out in public, while others remembered lawmakers calling them about specific investigations. Behind all that testimony is the question of whether people in power tried to influence the justice system.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The six former U.S. attorneys were among eight dismissed by the Bush administration late last year. They were called to testify by Democrats in the House and Senate looking into whether the firings were politically motivated.

David Iglesias, the former prosecutor in New Mexico, had the most interesting story to tell, recounting phone calls he took from two members of that state's congressional delegation. The first came from Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson, who last October, in the heat of a pitched reelection battle, asked Iglesias about possible indictments in an ongoing corruption probe involving Democrats.

Mr. DAVID IGLESIAS (Former U.S. Attorney): She said, what can you tell me about sealed indictments? The second she said any question about sealed indictments, red flags went up in my head because, as you know, we cannot talk about indictments until they're made public. In general, we specifically cannot talk about a sealed indictment.

NAYLOR: Iglesias said a few weeks later he got another call from a New Mexico Republican. This time it was Senator Pete Domenici on the phone.

Mr. IGLESIAS: And he wanted to ask me about the corruption matters or the corruption cases that had been widely reported in the local media. I said, all right. And he said, are these going to be filed before November? And I said, I didn't think so. And to which he replied, I'm very sorry to hear that. And then the line went dead.

NAYLOR: Iglesias told the Senate panel he felt sick after receiving Domenici's call and felt he'd been leaned on and pressured to get these matters moving. Domenici and Wilson have acknowledged making the calls but denied putting political pressure on Iglesias.

Another ousted prosecutor, John McKay of Washington State, testified yesterday. He, too, received a call from Congress. In 2004, McKay said the then chief of staff of Republican congressman Doc Hastings, Ed Cassidy, called, wanting to know if his office was planning to investigate the outcome of the state's gubernatorial race in which Democrat Christine Gregoire was seated after a highly charged recount.

Mr. John MCKAY (Former U.S. Attorney): When Mr. Cassidy called me, I stopped him and I told him that I was sure that he wasn't asking me on behalf of his boss to reveal information about an ongoing investigation or to lobby me on one, because we both knew that would be improper.

NAYLOR: Hastings, a member of the House Ethics Committee, issued a statement saying the call and the conversation were, quote, "entirely appropriate." Appearing before a House Judiciary sub-committee yesterday afternoon, a Justice Department official denied any of the firings were done for political reasons. William Moschella said the department wanted to do what it could to push the Bush administration's priorities in its final two years. He said Iglesias was replaced for performance-related issues.

Mr. WILLIAM MOSCHELLA (Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): Mr. Iglesias had delegated to his first assistant the overall running of the office. And quite frankly, U.S. attorneys are hired to run the office.

NAYLOR: Another spat developed over a conversation one of the former attorneys reported having with another Justice Department official. A.G. Bud Cummins, who was replaced by a political ally of White House aide Karl Rove, told lawmakers he had a phone conversation with a friend in the Justice Department who cautioned Cummins about talking publicly about the firings.

Mr. Bud Cummins (Former U.S. Attorney): I'm not trying to characterize that as a threat. It was a very congenial phone call. It might have been a threat, it might have been a warning; it might have been an observation, a prediction. You can characterize it. I'm going to leave that to you.

NAYLOR: A Justice Department spokesman said what was a private and collegial conversation is now, quote, "somehow being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress." A left-leaning advocacy group has called for ethics investigations into Domenici and Wilson's conduct. Members of Congress are barred by ethics rules from interfering in federal investigations. The political theater aside, Democrats also hope to change the law that allowed the firings and allows the attorney general to appoint interim replacements without having them confirmed by the Senate.

Bryan Naylor, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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