WASHINGTON — The growing controversy over the Bush administration's abrupt dismissal of eight federal prosecutors raises a disturbing question: Has the Bush administration tried to use the federal government's vast law enforcement powers against its political enemies?
"It would be enormously problematic if, in fact, the Justice Department or the White House were trying to use U.S. attorneys for political purposes," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "The questions are now hanging in the air."
Some Democrats hear echoes of Watergate in the administration's dismissals of the prosecutors and suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign. Others want to know whether Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, played a role in the firings.
Justice Department officials say politics had nothing to do with the firings, but some of the ousted U.S. attorneys and outside legal experts think otherwise. Congressional Democrats say they're determined to find the truth.
Lawmakers in both political parties have expressed concern about evidence of political meddling in the weeks prior to last November's elections, when it was becoming clear that Democrats might take control of Congress for the first time in 12 years.
Justice Department officials have acknowledged that former U.S. Attorney H.E. Cummins was booted from his post in Little Rock, Ark., to make room for a former Rove aide. Other fired prosecutors handled politically sensitive investigations that angered Republicans during the run-up to the November elections.
"U.S. attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys take an oath to exercise their authority without fear or favor. It would be a gross abuse of power to allow partisan political considerations to enter into their decisions," said Bruce Green, a former U.S. attorney and a leading expert on legal ethics.
This much isn't in dispute: Eight U.S. attorneys, all of them appointed by President Bush, were forced to resign with little explanation. Most got their walking papers in December.
Justice Department officials say that, with the exception of Cummins, the fired prosecutors were ousted for poor performance.
"I want to reassure the American people that we in no way have made decisions to politicize these offices," Gonzales said Friday.
Skeptics remain unconvinced.
In some cases, the possible role of politics is easy to spot. Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias thinks he lost his job in New Mexico because he refused to speed up an investigation of a prominent local Democrat. Republicans were hoping for an indictment before last fall's election, but so far no one's been charged.
White House political guru Rove was in Albuquerque, N.M. on Sept. 30 and kept a low public profile. He attended a $5,000 a plate fundraiser at the house of the state Republican Party chairman. Also present and seated next to Rove was Paul Kennedy, a prominent Republican and former judge who'd gotten involved in Iglesias's investigation after another lawyer handling the case died.
The Albuquerque Journal reported that Rove was there to help boost Rep. Heather Wilson, who was facing a tough fight for re-election.
Wilson and Sen. Pete Domenici, both New Mexico Republicans, have acknowledged that they called prosecutor Iglesias about his investigation before the election. A scandal involving a local Democrat could have helped Wilson politically, although the lawmakers insist that they didn't push for a quick indictment. The White House said Rove didn't encourage them to make the calls, and Wilson won anyway, by 875 votes.
Iglesias told Congress that he felt "leaned on" by the two lawmakers.
Legal experts agreed that the calls were out of bounds even if the lawmakers didn't demand action. "The problem is that there is implied pressure," said Monroe Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University. "What we're talking about here is the abuse of prosecutorial power for political purposes."
In California, ousted U.S. Attorney Carol C. Lam ruffled Republican feathers by indicting and convicting Republican Rep. Randy &qu ot;Duke" Cunningham on corruption charges. In western Washington, former U.S. Attorney John McKay said he felt pressure over an investigation of alleged voter fraud by Democrats. McKay angered some Republicans by declining to file charges.
"Nobody who objectively looks at this is going to think, oh, what a coincidence," said former prosecutor Green, now a Fordham University law professor who's on leave at New York University.
Tobias, the University of Richmond professor, said the Justice Department might have had good reason to fire some of the prosecutors, but probably not all of them.
"Most of the U.S. attorneys had pretty good evaluations, and some of them had stunningly good evaluations. Some did not," he said. "It's not that all eight of them were incompetent and should have been fired."
Hofstra Professor Freedman said he's troubled by the thought that Bush appointees might have been pushed beyond their ethical boundaries, despite their ties to the administration.
"These were people who were acceptable to this administration for really important positions. You would expect that, up to a point, they would go along," he said.
Freedman said the controversy raises questions about the independence of every U.S. attorney.
"They certainly have gotten the message, haven't they," he said.