WASHINGTON — Presidential advisor Karl Rove and at least one other member of the White House political team were urged by the New Mexico Republican party chairman to fire the state's U.S. attorney because of dissatisfaction in part with his failure to indict Democrats in a voter fraud investigation in the battleground election state.
In an interview Saturday with McClatchy Newspapers, Allen Weh, the party chairman, said he complained in 2005 about then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to a White House liaison who worked for Rove and asked that he be removed. Weh said he followed up with Rove personally in late 2006 during a visit to the White House.
"Is anything ever going to happen to that guy?" Weh said he asked Rove at a White House holiday event that month.
"He's gone," Rove said, according to Weh.
"I probably said something close to 'Hallelujah,'" said Weh.
Weh's account calls into question the Justice Department's stance that the recent decision to fire Iglesias and seven U.S. attorneys in other states was a personnel matter - made without White House intervention. Justice Department officials have said the White House's involvement was limited to approving a list of the U.S. attorneys after the Justice Department made the decision to fire them.
Rove could not be reached Saturday, and the White House and the Justice Department had no immediate response.
"The facts speak for themselves," Iglesias said, when he was told of Weh's account of his conversation with Rove.
Weh's disclosure comes as Congress investigates the circumstances behind the firings of the U.S. attorneys, most of whom had positive job evaluations, including Iglesias. Democrats have charged the Bush administration tried to inject partisan politics into federal prosecutions in order to influence election outcomes.
Weh said he doesn't know whether Rove was directly involved in the firing or was merely advised of the decision.
Weh insisted this wasn't about partisan politics.
"There's nothing we've done that's wrong," he said. "It wasn't that Iglesias wasn't looking out for Republicans. He just wasn't doing his job, period."
But Iglesias, who was fired Dec. 7, said he believes politics was the driving force. He accused Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson of trying to pressure him to bring indictments against several Democrats in time for the 2006 congressional election.
Domenici and Wilson acknowledge calling Iglesias, but deny pressuring him.
Justice Department officials have revealed that Domenici repeatedly contacted officials within the department requesting Iglesias' removal. But when asked Friday whether he contacted Rove about the issue, Domenici said he could not remember.
Iglesias said Friday he believes the impatience of state Republicans raises the possibility that the Bush administration might have been more involved than officials have acknowledged.
"Part of the controversy behind this is prosecutorial discretion," Iglesias said. "What that means is it's up to the sole discretion of the prosecutor in the case of how to handle the indictment and when to issue it."
Former federal prosecutors and defense lawyers who've represented public officials in corruption cases say the allegations of political inference could undermine the reputation of U.S. attorneys as impartial enforcers of the law.
Defense lawyers trying to convince juries to acquit their clients in corruption cases often accuse the government of mounting political vendettas against their clients. But it's virtually unheard of to have the former U.S. attorney in the case to be offering possible evidence of such interference.
"Anyone with any experience within the Justice Department is completely shocked and appalled by what has been described," said Stanley Hunterton, a former federal prosecutor of 12 years who investigated organized crime in Detroit and Las Vegas. "One of the things the Department has stood for was being apolitical. Sure, politics does gets involved in the appointment process, but this is just nuts."
Several Republican activists interviewed for this story said their frustration with Iglesias dated back to before the 2004 election, and his decision to create a task force on voter fraud rather than try to prosecute Democrats who submitted allegedly fraudulent voter registrations.
They also felt that he had largely botched a corruption case against the state treasurer, a Democrat. After a mistrial, federal prosecutors eventually secured a conviction.
By last fall, Wilson's re-election campaign was in serious trouble. But Republicans, including Weh, said they remained convinced that federal indictments were about to come down against several high-profile Democrats in a long-brewing corruption investigation related to courthouse construction projects.
On Sept. 30, nine donors were summoned to Weh's house for a $5,000-a-plate luncheon with Rove.
Among them was Paul Kennedy, a former state Supreme Court justice who had advised state lawmakers on whether to impeach the state treasurer.
Kennedy also represented the accountant who went to the FBI and U.S. attorney's office with the initial evidence implicating Democrats in the courthouse corruption case.
He acknowledges that he thought indictments of Democrats would help Wilson's re-election, and possibly hurt Democrats all the way up to Gov. Bill Richardson. But he also insists that's not what was driving his impatience - that it was a matter of the serving the public interest.
"What was I supposed to do?" he asked. "Look the other way when I saw corruption? It had to go the FBI. We gave them a lot of solid evidence."
Kennedy sat next to Rove at the luncheon that day. But in an interview he insists he never discussed the matter with him. Pat Rogers, former general counsel to the state Republican Party says he can't remember whether he attended the luncheon but that he also never discussed the matter with Rove or with Bush.
Weh says neither Iglesias nor the courthouse probe came up. Instead, donors voiced concern that Republicans would lose control of the House of Representatives. Rove assured them they would not.
But between then and the election, at least three backers of the courthouse corruption case - Wilson, Domenici, and Rogers - acknowledged they were on the phone to Iglesias to inquire about the status of the investigations. Rogers represented Wilson after she won re-election by less than 900 votes.
Rogers said he asked Iglesias before the election to talk about the case. When they finally met for lunch, Rogers said he told Iglesias, "David, in my mind, the failure to bring appropriate changes and proceed on a corruption case because of the pending election is as bad as ignoring it entirely."
"I don't know whether anyone talked to Rove or President Bush about David at any time, but complaints about David would track way back to before the election of 2004," Rogers said. "It was not a secret, the unhappiness with David."
The courthouse controversy has yet to yield indictments. And for the time being, Iglesias' firing has overshadowed talk of that probe.