WASHINGTON—Only weeks before last year's pivotal midterm elections, the White House urged the Justice Department to pursue voter-fraud allegations against Democrats in three battleground states, a high-ranking Justice official has told congressional investigators.
In two instances in October 2006, President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, or his deputies passed the allegations on to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.
Sampson tapped Gonzales aide Matthew Friedrich, who'd just left his post as chief of staff of the criminal division. In the first case, Friedrich agreed to find out whether Justice officials knew of "rampant" voter fraud or "lax" enforcement in parts of New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and report back.
But Friedrich declined to pursue a related matter from Wisconsin, he told congressional investigators, because an inquiry so close to an election could inappropriately sway voting results. Friedrich decided not to pass the matter on to the criminal division for investigation, even though Sampson gave him a 30-page report prepared by Republican activists that made claims of voting fraud.
Late Thursday night, a Justice Department spokesman disputed McClatchy's characterization, saying that the White House asked for an inquiry, but never ordered an investigation to be opened.
While it was known that Rove and the White House had complained about prosecutors not aggressively investigating voter fraud, Friedrich's testimony suggests that the Justice Department itself was under pressure to open voter fraud cases despite a department policy that discourages such action so close to an election.
The new details from Friedrich's closed-door testimony were provided to McClatchy Newspapers as Gonzales made his third appearance Thursday before Congress to answer questions about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
Congressional investigators are looking into whether the firings were motivated in part by prosecutors' failure to bring voter-fraud charges against Democrats.
In New Mexico, one of the states where voter-fraud allegations surfaced, the U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, was fired. The U.S. attorney in Wisconsin, Steve Biskupic, was targeted for removal but wasn't fired. Sampson told investigators that Biskupic may have been spared because Justice officials were wary of angering Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., then chairman of the judiciary panel.
Gonzales revealed little in the daylong testimony, as Democrats grew increasingly upset with his failure to offer specifics about who decided whom to fire and why.
Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., accused Gonzales of lying when he couldn't be pinned down on who decided to add Iglesias to the list in the eleventh hour. "Are you the attorney general?" he asked. "Do you run the Department of Justice? You know who put him on the list, but you won't tell us."
The Justice Department issued a statement after the hearing, saying "it is again clear that the Attorney General did not ask for the resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain."
A portion of the transcript of Friedrich's testimony was released during the hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. Other redacted portions were described to McClatchy Newspapers by a senior congressional aide familiar with the testimony. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the full transcript hasn't been released. Friedrich couldn't be reached for comment.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto downplayed the importance of Friedrich's testimony, saying, "It's no secret that we and others had long-standing concerns about voter fraud in a number of places—including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Mexico."
He also criticized members of Congress for their "selective leaking of testimony" and "breathless reaction to any mention of Karl Rove."
Gonzales remained unwavering in his insistence that the firings weren't improper as Republicans called for an end to the investigation.
"As we have gone forward, the list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of genuine wrongdoing has not," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "Mr. Attorney General, this investigation may find that you and your staff did only what you were accused of at the start—the unremarkable and perfectly legal act of considering ordinary politics in the appointment and oversight of political appointees."
Although the Justice Department has released thousands of documents related to the inquiry, officials haven't said whether they considered firing more prosecutors.
McClatchy Newspapers has reported that the department targeted at least four other prosecutors, including Biskupic.
Another former U.S. attorney, Todd Graves of Kansas City, Mo., revealed this week that he was asked to step aside for another candidate. He also said he had refused to sign off on a voting-rights lawsuit, which another Justice Department official later approved in Washington. The official, Brad Schlozman, later became Graves' temporary replacement.
Gonzales denied that the department considered removing Graves as part of the same firing plan.
Asked whether Graves may have been fired for refusing to sign off on the lawsuit, Gonzales said, "I have no basis to believe that particular case had anything to do with Mr. Graves' departure."
He also denied that the department considered firing former Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Debra Yang, despite reports that former White House counsel Harriet Miers had inquired about whether she would be leaving. Yang left to join a law firm representing Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., as her office was investigating him. She has said she left voluntarily.
In addition to Graves and Biskupic, the department targeted at least two other U.S. attorneys before settling on the eight late last year.
The other prosecutors, Thomas Heffelfinger of Minneapolis and Thomas Marino of Pennsylvania, were located in states that Rove identified as election battleground states.