By Susan Crabtree - 03/07/07 05:59 PM EST
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty’s chief of staff defended a phone call he made to a former U.S. attorney in a letter sent to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Tuesday.
In the letter, Chief of Staff Michael Elston insists that he did not threaten former U.S. Attorney H.E. “Bud” Cummins III in any way and specifically did not discourage him from testifying before Congress.
“I do not understand how anything that I said to him in our last conversation in mid-February could be construed as a threat of any kind, and I certainly had no intention of leaving him with that impression,” the letter said.
The letter is part of the Justice Department’s response to a growing controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year. It addresses testimony from several U.S. attorneys who appeared before the House and Senate Judiciary committees Tuesday.
During dramatic exchanges between Cummins and senators at the hearing, Cummins discussed a call he received from Elston 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 was concerned that Elston may have been trying to send a message during the call that the administration would retaliate if the attorneys continued to talk to the press, and especially if they agreed to testify before Congress.
During the Senate hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked all of the former U.S. attorneys present 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 against the caller.
Later, in response to questions from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Cummins said he believed one way to characterize Elston’s call was “friendly advice.” He added that he thought an obstruction of justice charge based on the call would be hard to win because Elston was discussing the publicity surrounding the controversy, not testimony before a court of law.
In his letter to Schumer, Elston said he had only three or four phone conversations with Cummins, and all of them were “cordial and professional.”
“I heard his testimony this morning and have reviewed the e-mail he sent to several other U.S. attorneys, and all I can tell you is that I am shocked and baffled,” he wrote.
He also noted that “at no time” did he suggest to Cummins what “he or any other former U.S. Attorney should or should not say about their resignations.”
Elston added that Cummins had called him twice to discuss whether he should testify voluntarily in response to invitations he had received from members of Congress.
“I told him that the Department had no position on whether he should testify, and that he should testify if he wanted to testify or decline to testify if he did not want to testify,” he wrote. “I told him the same thing the second time he asked. I respect the role of Congress in our constitutional system, and I have never suggested to anyone that it would be appropriate to withhold information or testimony from Congress.”
A call to Schumer’s office was not returned by press time.