WASHINGTON _Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy angrily threatened Tuesday to issue subpoenas "if the White House continues to stonewall" his panel's investigation into fired U.S. attorneys, and he said he was "deeply troubled" by what he called White House efforts to "manipulate the (Justice) Department into its own political arm."
Leahy, D-Vt., charged that "every week seems to bring new revelations about the erosion of independence at the Justice Department. This administration was willing, in the U.S. attorney firings and in the vetting of career hires for political allegiance, to sacrifice the independence of law enforcement and the rule of law for loyalty to the White House."
In two tense hours of sworn testimony, former Acting Assistant Attorney General Bradley Schlozman faced harsh questioning from Leahy and other committee Democrats over his hiring practices, his handling of a complaint of voter discrimination against Native Americans and his decision as U.S. attorney in Kansas City to seek voter fraud-related indictments days before the 2006 congressional election.
Schlozman stated repeatedly that he never "crossed the line" of improperly inserting political concerns into the administration of justice.
Even so, Schlozman acknowledged reaching out to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, for Justice Department recruits and boasting that he'd brought in a large number of Republicans to one of the department's units.
A central figure in the controversy that began with the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys, the 36-year-old Schlozman was a pivotal player in civil rights policies as the division's top deputy and acting chief for five months in 2005. He made the committee wait three weeks for his testimony and said he spent 25 to 30 hours preparing. He identified five senior department officials who helped him prepare for the hearing, attended only by committee Democrats.
Things got testy when Leahy questioned Schlozman on his indictment of four voter registration workers one week before the November 2006 elections, despite a department policy that discourages politically sensitive indictments close to an election.
Schlozman testified that he brought the indictments against the employees of ACORN, a liberal community activist group that registers poor people and minorities to vote, "at the direction of the Public Integrity Section," the Justice Department unit that oversees voter-fraud prosecutions.
"At your instigation," Leahy said.
"The Department of Justice does not time prosecutions to elections," Schlozman said.
"Yes they do," Leahy shouted, his voice echoing through the packed hearing room. Leahy held up a department manual that lays out parameters for bringing election-related prosecutions.
Schlozman said that the timing of the prosecutions didn't violate the longstanding department policy.
He added that he "did not think it (the prosecution) was going to have any effect on the election."
"Amazing," Leahy responded.
Schlozman disclosed that he sought approval from a top aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty before bringing the indictments. He said that the aide, chief of staff Michael Elston, told him someone would get back to him shortly.
Former Kansas City U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, who also testified Tuesday, told the panel that when he read about the ACORN indictments, "it surprised me that they would be filed that close to an election."
Schlozman also testified that his office was too overwhelmed in the fall of 2004 to fully investigate a complaint from a U.S. attorney that Native Americans were facing voter discrimination because of a decision by Minnesota's Republican secretary of state.
Rather than giving the chief of the Voting Rights Section full authority to investigate the complaint, Schlozman limited him to contacting the office of Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.
"Anytime we're doing anything in a pre-election situation ... we want to make sure we don't go off half-cocked," Schlozman said.
David Becker, who worked in the Voting Rights Section at the time and listened to the testimony Tuesday, disputed Schlozman's account.
"I can't imagine not giving the highest priority to a complaint made by a U.S. attorney about the disenfranchisement of minority voters," he said.
Schlozman also acknowledged that he was named interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City in March 2006 despite having never tried a civil or criminal case.
Schlozman now works as an associate counsel in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.