Thursday, March 08, 2007

Prosecutors Squeezed

Fired US Prosecutors Felt Threatened by Hill Republicans

By Thomas D. Williams
t r u t h o u t | Report
Wednesday 07 March 2007

Four US attorneys testified before Congress Tuesday that they believed they were forced to resign for improper reasons - charges immediately rebutted by Deputy US Attorney General John Moschella.

However, Moschella did testify before the US House of Representatives that, in retrospect, the Justice Department was mistaken in failing to explain the reasons for the firings to the prosecutors and four others before they were informed of their removals.

"First, although the department stands by its decision," Moschella said, "it would have been much better to have addressed the relevant issues with each one of them [beforehand]. Second, the department has not asked them to resign to influence any public corruption case and would never do so. And, third, the administration at no time intended to circumvent the confirmation process."

Since the fired prosecutors' replacements were interim appointments of the Justice Department and the president, Democratic congressmen had accused the administration of circumventing Congressional approval of the newly appointed US attorneys.

All four fired prosecutors, who were called to testify before both the US Senate and the House, said they believed there were no valid questions about professional competence or performance reviews that could have justified their removals. They were all appointed during the administration of President George W. Bush.

An email from one of the US attorneys, Arkansas' Bud Cummins, was offered by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, as potential Congressional evidence of alleged improper warnings of retribution by high Justice Department officials. In the email, Cummins warned the other removed head prosecutors about a conversation he had with Justice Department Counselor and Chief of Staff Michael J. Elston. Cummins said that if he and others continued to criticize their firings in the press, the department would weigh in with the media as well. Under more intense questioning from US Sen. Arlen Specter , Cummins said he did not take Elston's communications as a criminal threat, but more accurately under one interpretive scenario as "friendly advice." Some senators and representatives are charging that the veteran prosecutors were allegedly fired because they either failed to prosecute those politicians the Bush administration was targeting or were targeting those the administration did not want prosecuted.

For instance, New Mexico US Attorney David C. Iglesias testified that six weeks before he was fired, he received the second of two calls from two Republican members of Congress. Senator Pete V. Domenici and Representative Heather A. Wilson were inquiring improperly last October, he said, about his office's prosecution of corruption inquiries involving Democratic politicians. Wilson wanted to know about some sealed and secret grand jury indictments, said Iglesias, and she seemed disappointed when he told her it would be illegal of him to discuss them. Two weeks later, said Iglesias, Domenici told him he had received "complaints about you." The senator then asked about what he considered the slow pace of a corruption investigation of Democratic politicians, not long before they faced a November election. When Iglesias said he refused to discuss the legally confidential probe, Domenici replied: "I am very sorry to hear about that," and hung up the phone.

Six weeks later, said Iglesias, he was notified he was fired. In hindsight, Iglesias said, he believed his firing was related to those two calls. Of Domenici's call, he said: "The fact that he would call on an investigation ... I felt it was a threatening call, due to the timing of the call. It was late October and a huge [political] battle was being waged in the district." Wilson and Domenici have said they had absolutely no intention to intimidate or create any improper communications with Iglesias. In fact, their telephone calls were perfectly proper, they said.

Several Republican senators, including Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina , told the prosecutors that they knew they served at the will of the president. Sessions, saying the prosecutors had all served in office for over four years, said it was time to give other qualified attorneys the chance to have "a wonderful job." Then, referring to the hearings inspired by the Democratic leadership, he told the prosecutors: "There is a lot of politics here, so let's not get involved with it."

But at the very end of the Senate hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Schumer had the final word. He said: "I resent it that the administration said they [the US attorneys] were grandstanding [by speaking out and testifying]. The word grandstanding is not appropriate ... This is to say to the administration: This is not going away by intimidating or name-calling because there are a lot of serious allegations here ... intimidation and obstruction of justice were mentioned ... But the one thing I'm going to say to the public is that we're going to get to the bottom of this because the integrity of the US Attorney's Office is so important to you, to us and to the country."

All of the prosecutors said they were entirely surprised by their forced resignations.

The San Diego, California , area federal prosecutor, Carol Lam, said her firing was a complete mystery to her in light of the fact that the administration's criticisms of her so-called inadequate prosecutions and investigations of illegal gun cases and illegal aliens had no rational basis in fact. She said she believed the firings "have a chilling effect" on federal prosecutors dedicated to getting the job done without fear or favor.

"The [fired] recipients of the [Justice Department] calls were all shocked," said Lam. "There was no notice or awareness; therefore, it becomes a guessing game ... There was a mystery to this. It could be because of this or it could be because of that. That's the chilling effect. I don't think this is in the best interest of the country to have US attorneys who just want to play it safe." Last year, Lam successfully prosecuted the conviction of California Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) of tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud. He admitted to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, the largest known public corruption case in US history. Lam's work also resulted in the conviction of Mitchell Wade, a major defense contractor. Wade plead guilty to bribing Cunningham and corrupting officials at the US Department of Defense, as well as to election fraud. Democratic congressmen have claimed those prosecutions didn't help her reputation with the Republican administration.

John McKay, Seattle , Washington's US attorney, said the new prosecutorial and investigative information procedures he instituted that were criticized by his superiors were ultimately praised by experienced prosecutors and investigators. What is needed now after he and other prosecutors were improperly forced to resign, he said, is: "prosecutorial independence, integrity, fairness and a rejection of the idea that partisan politics or political favors in any way enter into our work. I know they didn't enter into mine" [or the other prosecutors' work].

Thomas "Dennie" Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970s, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court and Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct, and about failures of the Pentagon and the VA to assist sick veterans returning from war.

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