WASHINGTON — The White House acknowledged on Sunday that presidential adviser Karl Rove served as a conduit for complaints to the Justice Department about federal prosecutors who were later fired for what critics charge were partisan political reasons.
House investigators on Sunday declared their intention to question Rove about any role he may have played in the firings.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Rove had relayed complaints from Republican officials and others to the Justice Department and the White House counsel's office. She said Rove, the chief White House political operative, specifically recalled passing along complaints about former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and may have mentioned the grumblings about Iglesias to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Iglesias says he believes he lost his job as the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico after rebuffing Republican pressure to speed his investigation of a Democratic state official.
Perino said Rove might have mentioned the complaints about Iglesias "in passing" to Gonzales. "He doesn't exactly recall, but he may have had a casual conversation with the A.G. to say he had passed those complaints to Harriet Miers," Perino said, relaying Rove's hazy recollection. Perino said such a conversation would be fairly routine at the White House.
"Lots of people at the White House gets lots of complaints about lots of different people on a multitude of subjects," she said. "The procedure is to listen and take the appropriate action to notify the relevant agency."
Perino said Rove told her that he did not suggest any of the eight U.S. attorneys be forced to resign.
The new details about Rove's involvement emerged as the top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee declared their interest in talking to him.
The committee is trying to determine whether the firings were part of an effort to exert political control over federal prosecutors. Democrats consider Rove the key source for any political interference at the Justice Department because of his role at the center of politics and policy in the White House.
Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., confirmed their plans after McClatchy Newspapers reported Saturday that New Mexico's Republican Party chairman, Allen Weh, had complained to Rove and one of Rove's deputies about Iglesias.
"Mr. Conyers and Ms. Sanchez intend to talk with Karl Rove about any role he may have had in the firing of the U.S. attorneys," Sanchez spokesman James Dau said. "The revelations from Mr. Weh certainly give us something else relevant and salient to talk about."
Conyers and Sanchez last week told the White House they intended to interview several unnamed White House officials. But they had not previously specified Rove. It was unclear whether they would seek his public testimony or simply have the committee staff interview him.
The White House's explanation of Rove's role is the latest attempt to explain the firings of Republican appointees in the middle of an administration and in the absence of allegations of misconduct. After initially citing "performance-related" reasons, the Justice Department later acknowledged that policy differences played a role but denied acting at the request of the White House. Rove's statement Sunday indicates a bigger White House role than was previously known.
In another development, two leading Democrats said Gonzales should resign. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Gonzales has lost credibility with his handling of the firings, his failure to catch privacy infringements by federal investigators operating under the Patriot Act and other controversies at the Justice Department.
Perino offered Rove's account of his dealings with the Justice Department after talking with him by telephone. She said Rove routinely passed along complaints about various U.S. attorneys to the Justice Department and then-White House counsel Miers.
Among the complaints that Rove relayed were concerns among Republican Party officials in various jurisdictions that the Justice Department was not being aggressive in pursuing allegations of election fraud by Democrats. Such allegations by Republicans were a particular concern in New Mexico and Washington.
Rove acknowledged that he personally complained to Miers that "voter fraud cases were not being treated as a priority" by the Justice Department, Perino said. He also passed along complaints about Iglesias that he had heard going back as far as 2004.
In addition to the voter fraud issue, some New Mexico Republicans were angry that Iglesias refused to speed up his corruption investigation of several Democratic state officials. At the time, party leaders were looking for any advantage they could get that might help them retain control of Congress.
Neither Rove nor his deputy, Scott Jennings, recalled talking to Weh, the New Mexico Republican Party chairman, about Iglesias, but they did not dispute Weh's account of the conversation, Perino said.
In an interview Saturday with McClatchy Newspapers, Weh said he complained in 2005 about 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, but Rove told him Iglesias had already been fired.
"He's gone," Rove said, according to Weh. While Rove didn't remember the conversation, Perino said that it most likely occurred during a White House Christmas party on Dec. 14 - a week after Iglesias was told that he should step down.
Sunday, Weh said he wanted to be clear he didn't think Rove had the power to fire Iglesias.
"Folks, this isn't about the White House political office, this is about an incompetent attorney," he told McClatchy Newspapers. "Clearly I'm smart enough to know Karl Rove can't terminate anybody. It was a request."