WASHINGTON — The White House was deeply involved in the decision late last year to dismiss federal prosecutors, including some who had been criticized by Republican lawmakers, administration officials said Monday.
Last October, President Bush spoke with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to pass along concerns by Republicans that some prosecutors were not aggressively addressing voter fraud, the White House said Monday. Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, was among the politicians who complained directly to the president, according to an administration official.
WHITE HOUSE SAID TO PROMPT FIRING OF PROSECUTORS
US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (L) and US Vice President Dick Cheney (R) watch as a federal judge takes his oath in Washington in 2006. Gonzales, a key but discreet figure in the Bush administration, is under increasing fire for zealously applying anti-terror laws and for his running of the Justice Department deemed to be too political. (AFP/Paul J. Richards)
The president did not call for the removal of any specific United States attorneys, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman. She said she had “no indication” that the president had been personally aware that a process was already under way to identify prosecutors who would be fired.
But Ms. Perino disclosed that White House officials had consulted with the Justice Department in preparing the list of United States attorneys who would be removed.
Within a few weeks of the president’s comments to the attorney general, the Justice Department forced out seven prosecutors.
Previously, the White House had said that Mr. Bush’s aides approved the list of prosecutors only after it was compiled.
The role of the president and his advisers in the prosecutor shakeup is likely to intensify calls by Congress for an investigation. It is the worst crisis of Mr. Gonzales’s tenure and provoked charges that the dismissals were a political purge threatening the historical independence of the Justice Department.
The idea of dismissing federal prosecutors originated in the White House more than a year earlier, White House and Justice officials said Monday.
In early 2005, Harriet E. Miers, then the White House legal counsel, asked a Justice Department official whether it would be feasible to replace all United States attorneys when their four-year terms expired, according to the Justice Department. The proposal came as the administration was considering which political appointees to replace in the second term, Ms. Perino said.
Ms. Miers sent her query to D. Kyle Sampson, a top aide to Mr. Gonzales, the Justice officials said. Mr. Sampson, who resigned Monday, replied that filling so many jobs at once would overtax the department. He suggested replacing a smaller group, according to e-mail messages and other memorandums compiled by the Justice Department.
Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, also had rejected the idea of replacing all the prosecutors, Ms. Perino said. But as Ms. Miers worked with Mr. Sampson on devising a list of attorneys to oust, Mr. Rove relayed to her complaints he had received that the Justice Department was not moving aggressively on voter fraud cases.
The White House continued to defend its handling of the dismissals.
“We continue to believe that the decision to remove and replace U.S. attorneys who serve at the pleasure of the president was perfectly appropriate and within our discretion,” Ms. Perino said.
“We stand by the Department of Justice assertion that they identified the seven U.S. attorneys who were removed, as they have said, based on performance and managerial reasons.”
On Monday Congressional Democrats demanded more information from the White House about the ousters, calling on Mr. Rove to testify about any discussions he had had about federal prosecutors. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said he would seek a subpoena for Mr. Rove’s testimony if he did not appear voluntarily.
Justice Department officials have said they removed the United States attorney in Arkansas earlier last year to make room for a Republican Party lawyer and onetime adviser to Mr. Rove.
In the other cases, though, the department at first denied that the dismissals were performance related, and then said they were, citing managerial problems, lack of aggressiveness and conflicts over seeking the death penalty or enforcing immigration laws.
Justice Department officials said Monday that they had only learned recently about Mr. Sampson’s extensive e-mail and memos with Ms. Miers about the prosecutors. The communications were discovered Thursday when Mr. Sampson turned over the material to officials who were assembling documents in response to Congressional requests.
The documents did not provide a clear motive for the firings. Some suggested that department officials were dissatisfied with specific prosecutors, but none cited aggressive public corruption inquiries or failure to pursue voter fraud cases as an explicit reason to remove them.
On Dec. 4, 2006, three days before the dismissals, Mr. Sampson sent an e-mail message to the White House with a copy to Ms. Miers outlining plans to carry out the firings
“We would like to execute this on Thursday, Dec. 7,” Mr. Sampson wrote. Because some United States attorneys were still in Washington attending a conference, he planned to postpone telling them they were being fired. He wrote, “We want to wait until they are back home and dispersed to reduce chatter.”
Mr. Sampson predicted that dismissals might stir debate. “Prepare to Withstand Political Upheaval,” he wrote in describing what to expect as a result of the firings. “U.S Attorneys desiring to save their jobs aided by their allies in the political arena as well as the Justice Department community, likely will make efforts to preserve themselves in office. You should expect these efforts to be strenuous.”
Mr. Rove’s role in expressing concerns about prosecutors had emerged in recent days. The White House acknowledged Sunday that Mr. Rove had passed on complaints to Mr. Gonzales and Ms. Miers about David C. Iglesias, who was dismissed as the United States attorney in New Mexico. Mr. Rove’s role surfaced after the McClatchy Newspapers reported that a Republican Party official in New Mexico had complained to Mr. Rove in 2005 and again a year later about Mr. Iglesias’s failure to indict Democrats in a voter fraud investigation.
Concern about voter registration fraud turned political in several states in 2004 where there were close elections, including some lost narrowly by Republican candidates.
An associate of Mr. Rove said Monday that although he had learned in November that the prosecutors were being replaced, his conversation with Allen Weh, the Republican Party chairman in New Mexico, and subsequently with Mr. Gonzales, were brief exchanges at holiday parties and that they occurred after Dec. 7, when Mr. Iglesias and six other prosecutors were dismissed.
John McKay, the ousted United States attorney in Seattle, said last week while in Washington to testify before Congress that White House lawyers interviewing him for a possible federal judgeship had asked him why he had “mishandled” an investigation into voter fraud allegations in his state following the 2004 elections.
House and Senate investigators have already made clear that they want to examine exactly what role the White House, Mr. Sampson, Ms. Miers (who left the administration in January), Mr. Rove and other senior officials played in the matter. Last week, six of the fired prosecutors testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Officials said Mr. Sampson, who once worked at the Bush White House interviewing candidates for United States attorney, was largely behind the effort at the Justice Department.
This week, the United States attorney dispute will be aired on the Senate floor during debate over legislation to roll back a provision of the antiterrorism law that allows President Bush to appoint interim United States attorneys indefinitely.
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