WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders said Wednesday that they'd seek testimony from several U.S. attorneys who were summarily fired by the Bush administration, hours after the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico alleged that he was fired because of political interference.
Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate vowed to hold a new round of hearings to determine if partisan politics played a role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys across the country. The House is set to vote Thursday on whether to issue subpoenas to four of the prosecutors. The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to ask the U.S. attorneys to testify voluntarily before it decides whether to subpoena them.
The controversy flared up early Wednesday afternoon after David Iglesias, the departing U.S. attorney from New Mexico, told McClatchy Newspapers that he believes he was forced out because he refused to speed up an indictment of local Democrats a month before November's congressional elections.
Iglesias said that two members of Congress called separately in mid-October to inquire about the timing of a federal probe of a kickback scheme. They appeared eager, he said, for an indictment to be issued before the elections in order to benefit the Republicans. He refused to name the members of Congress because, he said, he feared retaliation.
Two months later, on Dec. 7, Iglesias became one of six U.S. attorneys who've been ordered to step down for what administration officials have called "performance-related issues." Two other U.S. attorneys also were asked to resign.
Iglesias, however, had received a positive performance review before he was fired and said that he suspected he was forced out because he resisted the pressure and didn't indict anyone before the election.
"I believe that because I didn't play ball, so to speak, I was asked to resign," Iglesias, who stepped down Wednesday, told McClatchy.
A Justice Department spokesman denied hearing of any congressional interference in the investigation and said Iglesias wasn't fired because of the case.
"The suggestion that David Iglesias was asked to resign because he failed to bring an indictment over a courthouse construction contract is flatly false," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman. "This administration has never removed a United States attorney in an effort to retaliate against them or inappropriately interfere with a public integrity investigation."
Roehrkasse said the department has encouraged federal prosecutors to go after corruption cases leading to a number of high-profile corruption indictments.
Justice Department officials have defended the firings of the U.S. attorneys as legitimate administrative decisions meant to improve the workings of the attorneys' offices. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the Senate last month that most of the forced resignations were motivated by "performance-related" reasons.
However, McClatchy Newspapers reported last month that five out of the six attorneys that McNulty mentioned had received positive job evaluations.
Iglesias acknowledged that he had no proof that the pressure from the members of Congress prompted his forced resignation. But he said the contact violated one of the most important tenets of a U.S. attorney's office: Don't mix politics with prosecutions.
"I was appalled by the inappropriateness of those contacts," Iglesias said of the calls.
U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president in a political process that includes Senate confirmation. But as soon as they assume office, they're expected to refrain from being politically active and to resist the urge to allow their political leanings to affect the outcomes of cases.
Iglesias said the two members of Congress not only contacted him directly, but also tried to wrest details of the case from him. Iglesias wouldn't comment on the case to McClatchy, but the local media have reported on aspects of the investigation, including allegations that a former Democratic state senator took money to ensure that an $82 million courthouse contract would go to a specific company.
Congressional questions about ongoing cases are supposed to go through the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Affairs to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Local media had reported that Iglesias' office might issue an indictment before the elections.
Iglesias said he refused to tell the lawmakers when any indictment would be issued, although he'd decided that the investigation needed more time.
He said he now regrets that he didn't report the calls to the Justice Department, as required by policy.
"I thought it would blow over," he said. "But I was wrong."
Democrats have described the midterm firings of the Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys as unprecedented and questioned whether the firings were politically motivated to root out moderates and install candidates loyal to the administration.
"I called this meeting because we pledged to do everything we can to get to the truth of what could be brazen abuse of power by the Bush administration," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the House judiciary subcommittee that'll vote on the subpoenas.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., took to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to question the Bush administration's rationale for the firings.
"Clearly, the performance of these U.S. attorneys was not a reason to fire them," Feinstein said.
The decision to fire the U.S. attorneys first came under scrutiny earlier this year after Senate Democrats discovered that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could use a little-noticed change in the Patriot Act to fill vacancies with interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms without Senate approval.
Iglesias and former U.S. attorneys Carol Lam in San Diego, John McKay in Seattle and Bud Cummins in Arkansas could be subpoenaed to testify before the House subcommittee. Iglesias said he would testify only if he were subpoenaed.
Iglesias' allegation raises new questions about the firings and appears to undermine the theory that the administration singled out moderate Republicans. Iglesias, a former military lawyer whose work helped inspire the Tom Cruise character in the movie "A Few Good Men," describes himself as a social conservative who strove to implement the administration's policies. Iglesias also was the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. attorney in his state in decades.
"I represent three huge voting blocks of the Republican party," he said. "I don't know why they would let someone go with those political credentials who has demonstratively done a good job."
Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said she hadn't heard of the allegations and couldn't comment on them.
"It wasn't us - that's all I can say," she said.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., didn't contact Iglesias about the courthouse investigation, Pearce spokesman David Host said.
Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also didn't call about the case, said Marissa Padilla, Udall's spokeswoman.
Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, both Republicans, didn't return phone calls.
Domenici wasn't facing re-election in November, but the state's two other Republicans, Pearce and Wilson, were up for election. Both won, but Wilson beat her opponent by only 875 votes out of nearly 211,000.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau