WASHINGTON — A high-ranking Justice Department official told one of the U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration that if any of them continued to criticize the administration for their ousters, previously undisclosed details about the reasons they were fired might be released, two of the ousted prosecutors told McClatchy Newspapers.
While the U.S. attorney who got the call regarded the tone of the conversation as congenial, not intimidating, the prosecutor nonetheless passed the message on to five other fired U.S. attorneys. One of them interpreted the reported comments by Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, as a threat.
Justice Department officials denied that the conversation with the U.S. attorney ever took place, and Elston said he called several of the fired U.S. attorneys but never made any such comments.
"I had no conversation in which I discussed with any U.S. attorney what they should or should not say to the media regarding their removal," Elston said.
The two prosecutors who described the call demanded anonymity because, they said, they didn't want to antagonize the Justice Department further.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse criticized McClatchy for running the story. "It is unfortunate that the press would choose to run an allegation from an anonymous source from a conversation that never took place," he said.
Six of the eight ousted U.S. attorneys have been subpoenaed to testify Tuesday before the House of Representatives. Four will appear voluntarily before the Senate after a liberal public-interest group Monday asked for the Senate ethics committee to investigate Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., for calling the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, who was later fired, during a corruption investigation of at least one Democrat.
According to one of the fired U.S. attorneys, Elston made the comments during a telephone conversation after Democrats began questioning whether the administration was attempting to purge more independent-minded Republican appointees in order to replace them with more partisan candidates.
According to the former U.S. attorney, Elston made a "pointed comment that indicated that somehow anyone who talked might become more embarrassed if the story continued on."
"The inference was that they were holding themselves back from saying more about why people were fired—that it was likely the department was going to step up the defense of their actions," the fired prosecutor said. "It could have been construed as friendly advice or a casual prediction. But I think it was expected that everyone would be told about the call."
When conveying the message to the others, the prosecutor tried to make it clear that the meaning of the conversation shouldn't be overdramatized.
But another former U.S. attorney, who wasn't a party to the Justice Department conversation, interpreted the comments as a threat, especially since it came when congressional Democrats were contacting the attorneys about possibly testifying before Congress.
"I took it to mean that negative, personal information would be released," the prosecutor said. "That if we made public comments or if we were to testify in Congress, that the gloves would come off and the Department of Justice would make us regret that we were talking."
The controversy over the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys has continued for weeks, but it was reignited last week when U.S. Attorney David Iglesias told McClatchy Newspapers that he believed that two members of Congress called him in mid-October to pressure him to complete the investigation before the November elections. Iglesias, who stepped down last week, added that he believed he was fired because he didn't speed up the case.
Domenici, who originally had recommended Iglesias for the post, apologized for making the call in a statement Sunday, but he said that he never pressured or threatened Iglesias about the case.
McClatchy Newspapers reported previously that Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., also called Iglesias about the investigation. The Washington Post reported in its online edition Monday that Wilson acknowledged contacting Iglesias, but denied pressuring him.
Domenici also acknowledged in his statement that he asked the Justice Department to replace Iglesias, but he said that he made the request before he called about the corruption probe.
Justice Department officials confirmed that Domenici called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in September 2005 and January and April of 2006.
During those calls, Domenici expressed general concerns about Iglesias' performance and questioned whether he was "up to the job," Roehrkasse said. During the first week of October 2006, Domenici made a similar and "very brief call" about Iglesias to McNulty, the deputy attorney general. At no time in these calls did the senator mention the public corruption case, Roehrkasse said.
The left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) asked the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate whether Domenici violated ethics law. Lawmakers are prohibited from attempting to influence Justice Department investigations. Members of the ethics committee released a statement saying they couldn't comment on an ongoing matter.
Also on Monday, Michael Battle, the Justice Department official who oversees the U.S. attorney's offices, resigned. In January, Battle sent an e-mail to all U.S. attorneys announcing that he'd be leaving and sent a more detailed e-mail to his immediate staff in February with his departure date, a Justice Department official said.
On Dec. 7, Battle told most of the U.S. attorneys that they were to be fired. Former prosecutors said that Battle told many of them he didn't know why they were fired, but the orders came from "on high."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)