WASHINGTON - Six former U.S. attorneys told two congressional committees Tuesday that Republican lawmakers and a congressional aide inquired about politically sensitive investigations, and their testimony raised new questions about whether the Bush administration removed the attorneys for political rather than professional reasons.
The U.S. attorneys, all of whom were appointed by President Bush, contradicted the administration's version of their sudden firings. Justice Department officials have downplayed the firings of eight U.S. attorneys as administrative decisions that were based on concerns about the attorneys' performance.
The U.S. attorneys testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee and the Senate Judiciary Committee that they were never given any specific reasons for their ousters. Two of them described interactions with Congress about criminal cases that Democrats have said could demonstrate that their removals were motivated by political considerations.
William E. Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, called the charges of political interference "dangerous, baseless and irresponsible."
"This office has never removed a U.S. attorney to retaliate against them or prevent a public corruption investigation," he said. "Not once."
John McKay, the ousted U.S. attorney for western Washington state, revealed that the former chief of staff to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., called him in the weeks after the hotly contested 2004 Washington governor's race to ask about the status of an investigation into voter fraud by the Democrats. McKay's office looked into the allegations but never filed any charges. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, eventually was declared the winner by 129 votes.
McKay said outside the hearing that top Bush aides were critical of his handling of the case when they interviewed him at the White House about becoming a federal judge.
David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, described separate phone calls from Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson about a corruption probe that involved at least one Democrat a month before the November elections and weeks before he was fired. At the time, Wilson was in a re-election race that she later won by 875 votes out of nearly 211,000 cast.
The prosecutors' testimony provoked a new round of accusations that Republicans tried to interfere with U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by the president but are supposed to refrain from partisan politics.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the House subcommittee, said in an interview that she expected the House to hold more hearings, and she left open the possibility of calling White House and Republican Party figures, as well high-level Justice Department officials.
Also Tuesday, an e-mail describing a conversation between one of the prosecutors and a high-ranking Justice Department official was made public.
In an e-mail sent to five of the ousted prosecutors, former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Arkansas said a Justice Department official told him that department officials feel "like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us," he wrote. "I was tempted to challenge him and say something movie-like such as `are you threatening ME???'"
In his testimony Tuesday, Cummins described the call as "advice" rather than a threat.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said Cummins "twisted" a collegial conversation with Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, "into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress."
"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," he said.
Most of the prosecutors voiced frustration about not knowing why they were removed.
Daniel Bogden, the former U.S. attorney in Nevada, said he asked William Mercer, the acting assistant attorney general, why he was removed. Bogden quoted Mercer as saying that the administration had a "very short two-year window of opportunity, and this would be an opportunity to put others into these positions so they could build their resumes."
In a shift from the administration's previous explanation, Moschella of the Justice Department said the U.S. attorneys were removed "for reasons related to policy priorities and management," rather than solely "performance-related" reasons.
"In hindsight, perhaps the situation could have been handled better," he said. "Our failure to provide reasons has only served to fuel . . . wild and inaccurate speculation about our motives. That said, the department stands by its decisions."
Cummins' departure "was not for performance reasons," Moschella said, but because Justice officials thought Cummins didn't plan to serve out the rest of his term, and they wanted to find a spot for a former aide to Karl Rove, President Bush's top political strategist.
Democrats seized on the prosecutors' testimony to question whether the White House may have been more actively involved in the effort to oust certain prosecutors and replace them with partisan loyalists.
In an interview, McKay said his handling of the 2004 Washington governor's race came back to haunt him when he was interviewed about a federal judgeship by then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and others in her office.
McKay said he was asked in the late summer or early fall of 2006 to explain the criticism of how he'd "mishandled" the governor's race investigation. McKay didn't reveal who asked the question, but he said it wasn't Miers.
McKay didn't get the nomination.
Most Republicans have maintained that the administration appeared to have valid reasons to fire the presidential appointees, and they accused the Democrats of grandstanding in their first use of their subpoena power since they took over the House and Senate in January.
The House panel's ranking Republican, Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, called the hearing a "show trial," accused the former U.S. attorneys of behaving "disingenuously" and said there was "not a shred of hard evidence" that their removals were coordinated politically.
Iglesias' allegations have prompted a liberal public-interest group to file ethics complaints against Domenici and Wilson. The two New Mexico lawmakers have acknowledged making the calls to inquire about the corruption case, but they have insisted they didn't try to pressure Iglesias.
Former Hastings aide Ed Cassidy's telephone call also could raise ethics questions, even though McKay testified that he stopped Cassidy before the conversation "crossed the line." McKay also said the FBI hadn't launched a formal investigation at the time, although the allegations of voter fraud had been widely publicized.
Cassidy, who appeared briefly to listen to the testimony, described the conversation as a "routine effort to determine whether allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election were, or were not, being investigated by federal authorities."
"As the top aide to the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, I understood the permissible limits on any such conversation," he said. "Mr. McKay understood and respected those boundaries as well."
Cassidy is now a senior adviser to House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and, among other things, advises Boehner on congressional ethics. Hastings chaired the House Ethics Committee from February 2005 until Democrats took control of the House earlier this year. He's now the ranking Republican on the committee, known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.