Senior aide implicated

A Democratic probe into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys implicated yesterday a senior staffer for Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the third GOP congressional office to become caught in the quickly escalating controversy in as many days.

During testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, former U.S. Attorney John McKay said that Ed Cassidy, then-chief of staff to Hastings, called him in 2004 to ask whether he was investigating allegations of voter fraud after a Democrat won the Washington state governor’s race in a third recount. At the time, McKay was serving as the chief federal law enforcement officer in Seattle.

McKay was one of seven U.S. attorneys fired by the administration in early December; another, H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, was relieved of his post last June. Democrats have demanded to know whether politics or the politically charged investigations that several of the U.S. attorneys had pursued had anything to do with their departures.

McKay said he responded to Cassidy’s initial questions with publicly available information and then tried to stop the line of questioning when pressed. McKay said he thought that Cassidy’s questions were related to internal U.S. attorney decisions about an investigation and were therefore improper under Justice Department ethics rules.

McKay said he stopped the conversation by asking Cassidy whether the aide was truly asking on behalf of his boss about an internal investigation or whether he was trying to lobby McKay to launch one, which would have been improper. Cassidy agreed that such questioning would be unethical and finished the conversation “in a most expeditious fashion,” McKay said. 

McKay said he was so alarmed afterwards that he called a meeting with two top officials in his office to discuss the matter and determine if he had responded appropriately. 

Cassidy characterized his call to McKay as “routine” and said that he was well aware of the “permissible limits” on such a conversation and that both he and McKay respected those boundaries.

“My conversation with John McKay was a routine effort to determine whether allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election were, or were not, being investigated by federal authorities,” Cassidy said in the statement. “As the top aide to the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, I understood the permissible limits on any such conversation. Mr. McKay understood and respected those boundaries as well. I am pleased that Mr. McKay recalls both our agreement to respect these boundaries and my subsequent decision to end the conversation promptly.”

The charges surrounding Cassidy’s call have implications on many levels. Hastings went on to become chairman of the House ethics committee after then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) purged the panel of its chairman, and at one point Hastings tried to make Cassidy its lead counsel. That move further intensified partisan divisions within the committee and rendered it largely inactive for months. Cassidy has since gone on to become a senior aide and floor assistant to Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he also will advise on ethics matters.

Hastings remains the ranking member on the ethics panel following the Democratic takeover in November and he may be forced to consider if the panel should launch an investigation into whether Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) broke House ethics rules for her own call to a different U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, last year. Iglesias was among the seven fired in December.

Just weeks before last year’s critical midterm election, Wilson called Iglesias to inquire about the progress of a public corruption case against a Democratic lawmaker. At the time, Wilson was running a close race and eventually won reelection by fewer than 1,000 votes. If Iglesias had handed down indictments before the election, they could have helped boost Republican prospects at the polls.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who has close ties to Wilson, also recently admitted to calling Iglesias. Both Wilson and Domenici have denied that they said anything that would pressure Iglesias.  The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has called for House and Senate investigations into the calls that Wilson and Domenici made.

Yesterday Hastings waved off a question from a reporter, referring all inquiries into the matter to his office. Later, he issued a statement that there was nothing wrong with Cassidy’s call to McKay.

“Ed Cassidy’s call and the conversation that took place were entirely appropriate,” Hastings’s statement said. “It was a simple inquiry and nothing more — and it was the only call to any federal official from my office on this subject either during or after the recount ordeal.”

Hastings also said he didn’t understand why McKay didn’t contact him if he was “truly dismayed” after the call.

“Tom McCabe of the Building Industry Association of Washington did contact my office in July of 2005 to ask that I urge the White House to replace Mr. McKay and I flat out refused to do so, which Ed Cassidy told him in the bluntest of terms,” Hastings said.

Cassidy had worked for Hastings for 12 years. When he left for Boehner’s office earlier this year, Hastings praised Cassidy as his “most trusted adviser and one of my closest friends.”
Boehner's press secretary, Brian Kennedy, also issued a statement yesterday evening.

“It is improper for anyone to attempt to unduly influence the initiation or outcome of an investigation,” the statement said. “Given their backgrounds, both Mr. Cassidy and U.S. Attorney McKay were acutely aware of this fact. Accordingly, both have made it abundantly clear that no such impropriety took place during their conversation and, more importantly, that neither had any intention of pursuing a discourse that could be construed to be inappropriate.”

Iglesias also testified yesterday, reiterating the charges that Domenici and Wilson tried to pressure him to move ahead with his investigation. 

Meanwhile, a few GOP senators, such as Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Jeff Sessions (Ala.), came to the administration’s defense and charged that Democrats were politicizing the issue.

“Maybe the law should not have been changed, but these cases … are not Exhibits A through G that it should be changed,” Kyl said. He said that the main Democratic argument concerning politicization “is probably untrue.”

Kyl said he has talked to U.S. attorneys in Arizona many times, but never about any ongoing case.
At one point during the Senate hearing, another witness, Cummins of Arkansas, discussed a call he received from Michael Elston, the chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, about a comment that Cummins had given the Washington Post about the firings. Cummins later sent an e-mail warning the other fired U.S. attorneys that he believed Elston was hinting that the White House would retaliate if they continued to talk to the press, and especially if they agreed to testify before Congress about that matter.

During the Senate hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked all of the U.S. attorneys what they would have done if one of their witnesses in a big case had received a similar call. All four said they would inquire further to see if they should bring obstruction of justice or witness tampering charges.

In response to questions from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Cummins later said he believed one way to characterize Elston’s call was “friendly advice.” He added that an obstruction of justice charge would be a hard case to win if the call was the only evidence, because it dealt mainly with publicity surrounding the firings and did not speak directly to whether he or the other fired U.S. attorneys should testify in a court of law about the matter.

For their part, House Democratic leaders indicated that the ethics committee should launch an investigation into the U.S. attorneys matter, but said they do not plan to file a complaint. 

“Am I going to file an ethics complaint? The answer is no,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “When issues are raised in the public sphere, the ethics committee has an obligation to look at them and I hope they will do that.”

The House ethics committee said yesterday it cannot comment on any possible investigation.
   
Jackie Kucinich, Elana Schor and Michael Soraghan contributed to this report.