lleging heavy-handed political pressure, fired U.S. prosecutors testified Tuesday they felt "leaned on" by Republican lawmakers to seek indictments and hushed by a Justice Department official who did not want them talking about their dismissals.
Testifying before Democratic-controlled congressional committees, six of eight recently ousted prosecutors said they were fired without explanation. Several described what they said was improper pressure by Republicans on pending cases.
New Mexico's David Iglesias told lawmakers he felt pressed by Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, last October to rush indictments against Democrats before Election Day in November.
Arkansas' Bud Cummins wrote other fired prosecutors in an e-mail last month of a "message" conveyed by a Justice Department official that if they continued to talk with news reporters, the agency "would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off" and fight back.
John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney in Seattle, said he stopped a top aide to Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican, from asking him detailed questions about an investigation into the disputed election of Washington state's Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2004.
A Justice Department official, invited to one of the two hearings, denied that any of the eight fired U.S. attorneys was improperly pressured or that they were ousted to make room for Republican political allies. Most of the firings were inspired by performance-related issues, he said.
California's Carol Lam, for example, was let go because her prosecution rate for violent crime and border violations was insufficient, William Moschella, an associate deputy attorney general, told a House subcommittee. Iglesias was fired because he had delegated too much to a deputy.
His accounting conflicts with performance reviews obtained by The Associated Press that give those ousted positive assessments.
"This administration has never removed a United States attorney to retaliate against them. Not once," Moschella said. "The department stands by its decision to ask these U.S. attorneys to resign."
A White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, said administration officials were aware of the impending firings and offered no objections. Presidential adviser Karl Rove "wasn't involved in who was going to be fired or hired."
A former Rove aide, Tim Griffin, took over in Arkansas on an interim basis in December. Griffin said last month he would not seek Senate confirmation, saying a "partisan circus" had formed around his appointment.
The administration's defense took up only a few moments in the daylong parade of fired federal prosecutors across Capitol Hill, where they recounted being kicked out of their jobs, first to the Senate Judiciary Committee and then to the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.
Their stories spanned states and legal issues, but they insisted they were not fired for poor performance. The department's claim to the contrary, several fired prosecutors said, inspired them to speak publicly.
Fired prosecutor felt sickened
In perhaps the day's most dramatic testimony, Iglesias told senators he felt sickened when Domenici hung up on him after being told that indictments in a corruption case against Democrats would not be handed up before the November elections.
"He said, 'Are these going to be filed before November?'" Iglesias recalled. "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."
Iglesias said he received the call from Domenici at home on October 26 or 27 and that it lasted two minutes, "tops."
"I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving," Iglesias testified. Asked by Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, whether such a call was unusual in Iglesias' experience, the former prosecutor answered, "Unprecedented."
In a statement late Tuesday, Domenici said, "Neither I nor those who overheard my side of the brief conversation recall my mentioning the November election to him. I did not pressure him."
Democrats tried to assemble the anecdotes into a pattern of intimidation and obstruction by the Bush administration and two Republican lawmakers.
"For over 150 years the process of appointing interim U.S. attorneys has worked well with virtually no problems," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "We need to assure that this kind of politicization of the U.S. attorney's offices does not happen again."
Democrats contend the administration fired the prosecutors without cause in an effort to make way for and reward GOP allies with the plum appointments -- without Senate confirmation.
A Republican joined the criticism to some extent, saying he was not convinced that the department acted properly.
"If the allegations are correct, then there has been serious misconduct in what has occurred in the terminations of these United States attorneys," Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said.
Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, a fellow New Mexico Republican, have acknowledged making the calls. They have denied placing political pressure on Iglesias. Neither responded to requests for reaction to Iglesias' testimony.
The two lawmakers may face additional questions over the matter. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said the House ethics committee "has a responsibility" to investigate Wilson's conduct.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has called for investigations of both Wilson and Domenici.
In the Arkansas firing, the Senate committee released an e-mail written by Cummins regarding a phone call he says he received February 20 from a department official.
Mike Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, expressed displeasure that the fired prosecutors had talked to reporters about their dismissals, according to the text.
"If they feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press, or organize behind the scenes congressional pressure, then they feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully," Cummins said in the e-mail to five other fired prosecutors.
"I don't want to overstate the threatening undercurrent in the call, but the message was clearly there," he added.
Asked by Specter whether he felt he was being threatened, Cummins said, "Some people would want to interpret that as a threat, but it could also be, 'Hey, here's some friendly advice.'"
Department denies making threat
The department denied making any threat, implied or otherwise.
"A private and collegial conversation between Mike Elston and Bud Cummins is now somehow being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress," department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
"Mike Elston did not tell any U.S. attorney what they should or should not say publicly about their departure, and any suggestion that such a conversation took place is ridiculous and not based on fact," Roehrkasse said.
As for the call to McKay by Hastings' aide, the congressman, who is ranking Republican on the House ethics committee, said, "It was a simple inquiry and nothing more." Ed Cassidy, Hastings' former chief of staff, is now senior adviser to Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
Iglesias told the panel he received a call from Wilson in mid-October in which she asked him about sealed indictments -- a topic prosecutors cannot discuss. Wilson's question "raised red flags in my head," Iglesias said.
"I was evasive and nonresponsive to her question," Iglesias told the panel, saying he talked generally about why some indictments are sealed. "She was not happy with that answer. And she said, 'Well I guess I'll have to take your word for it.'" The call ended almost immediately, Iglesias said.
Asked by Schumer if he felt pressured by that call, Iglesias replied: "Yes sir, I did."