Thursday, March 08, 2007
Americans often suspect that their political leaders are arrogant and out of touch. But even then it is nearly impossible to fathom what self-delusion could have convinced Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico that he had a right to call a federal prosecutor at home and question him about a politically sensitive investigation.
That disturbing tale is one of several revealed this week in Congressional hearings called to look into the firing of eight United States attorneys. The hearings left little doubt that the Bush administration had all eight — an unprecedented number — ousted for political reasons. But it points to even wider abuse; prosecutors suggest that three Republican members of Congress may have tried to pressure the attorneys into doing their political bidding.
It already seemed clear that the Bush administration’s purge had trampled on prosecutorial independence. Now Congress and the Justice Department need to investigate possible ethics violations, and perhaps illegality. Two of the fired prosecutors testified that they had been dismissed after resisting what they suspected were importunings to use their offices to help Republicans win elections. A third described what may have been a threat of retaliation if he talked publicly about his firing.
David Iglesias, who was removed as the United States attorney in Albuquerque, said that he was first contacted before last fall’s election by Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico. Ms. Wilson, who was in a tough re-election fight, asked about sealed indictments — criminal charges that are not public.
Two weeks later, he said, he got a call from Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, asking whether he intended to indict Democrats before the election in a high-profile corruption case. When Mr. Iglesias said no, he said, Mr. Domenici replied that he was very sorry to hear it, and the line went dead. Mr. Iglesias said he’d felt “sick.” Within six weeks, he was fired. Ms. Wilson and Mr. Domenici both deny that they had tried to exert pressure.
John McKay of Seattle testified that the chief of staff for Representative Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington, called to ask whether he intended to investigate the 2004 governor’s race, which a Democrat won after two recounts. Mr. McKay says that when he went to the White House later to discuss a possible judicial nomination (which he did not get), he was told of concerns about how he’d handled the election. H. E. Cummins, a fired prosecutor from Arkansas, said that a Justice Department official, in what appeared to be a warning, said that if he kept talking about his firing, the department would release negative information about him.
Congress must keep demanding answers. It must find out who decided to fire these prosecutors and why, and who may have authorized putting pressure on Mr. Cummins. And it must look into whether Senator Domenici and Representatives Wilson and Hastings violated ethics rules that forbid this sort of interference. We hope the House committee will not be deterred by the fact that Mr. Hastings is its ranking Republican. The Justice Department also needs to open its own investigation. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s claim that these prosecutors were fired for poor performance was always difficult to believe. Now it’s impossible.