WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to subpoena at least five high-ranking Department of Justice officials to testify about the mass firings of U.S. attorneys.
Among those who could be compelled to testify is Michael Elston, the official who's accused of trying to intimidate the ousted prosecutors to silence them.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., will ask committee members Thursday to authorize the subpoenas of Kyle Sampson, the Justice Department's chief of staff; Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty; acting Assistant Attorney General William Mercer; spokeswoman Monica Goodling; and Michael Battle, who's announced that he's leaving his post as director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys. Battle notified the prosecutors of their firings.
Additional hearings could fuel weeks of controversy over whether the Bush administration removed eight U.S. attorneys for political, rather than performance, reasons.
Senate and House of Representatives aides said no decisions have been made about whether to call Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or high-ranking White House legal and political advisers to testify.
Those expected to receive subpoenas were named by six ousted prosecutors this week before Senate and House committee hearings into how the attorneys learned they were being forced out last December.
The vote to authorize the subpoenas could be held immediately or delayed a week, but a majority of the committee is expected to approve them. A spokeswoman said Leahy would prefer to have the Justice Department officials testify voluntarily but he wants the subpoenas in place as a backup option. The officials could be called to testify as early as mid-March.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Democrats' point man on the investigation, said in a statement that "it's clear there was a concerted effort to purge an impressive crop of U.S. attorneys" and that "the next step is to identify and question those responsible for hatching this scheme to use U.S. attorneys as pawns in a political chess game."
A Justice Department spokesman questioned the need for additional hearings and said the department is providing Congress with "very forthcoming facts and information."
Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the move demonstrated that some lawmakers "are no longer interested in those facts, but would rather play politics."
Many Republicans have defended the removals and said that U.S. attorneys can be removed for any reason.
But the prosecutors in question earned strong performance reviews. Two told lawmakers this week that when they pressed for reasons for their firings, they were told that they were being removed to allow other prosecutors favored by the administration to build their resumes.
Others testified that they were involved in corruption investigations of Republicans or were under pressure to charge Democrats in corruption cases prior to pivotal elections. Former New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias testified that he was contacted by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and felt pressured inappropriately.
Domenici's office on Wednesday confirmed a Washington Post report that the senator has hired prominent criminal lawyer Lee Blalack to represent him.
Blalack has represented former Republican Senate Majority Leader William Frist in connection with an investigation into his sale of stock. He also represented former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, D-Calif., in connection with a House Ethics Committee investigation of the passage of Medicare legislation. In 2005, Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors.
The Senate's ethics panel has indicated that it's conducting a preliminary review of the matter, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has encouraged the House's ethics panel to do the same.