New subpoenas eyed in wake of firings

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with senior Judiciary Committee senators late yesterday in an attempt to stave off new subpoenas in the U.S. attorneys scandal, but voluntary testimony appears unlikely to quell the growing furor over GOP lawmakers’ contact with several fired prosecutors.

The Senate Judiciary panel placed subpoenas for five Department of Justice (DoJ) officials on its agenda for yesterday morning, but no votes occurred as senators prepared for an afternoon meeting with Gonzales. Democrats indicated they are willing to take private testimony, as Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed in a Wednesday letter to Gonzales.

“I would like to work out a process for the department promptly to make these witnesses available for interviews, depositions, or hearing testimony, on a voluntary basis,” Leahy wrote. The decision to list subpoenas on this morning’s Senate Judiciary agenda, Leahy added, was aimed at speeding the process of Justice’s cooperation with the Senate.

The Gonzales meeting was not completed by press time, but the brouhaha over eight U.S. attorneys ousted by Justice late last year continued to hold Capitol Hill in thrall. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent Gonzales their own missive yesterday, challenging the attorney general’s Wednesday comments in USA Today.

“If the Department of Justice is comfortable justifying its reasons and is committed to going through the Senate confirmation process, then the department should also support our efforts to pass legislation requiring Senate confirmation of U.S. Attorneys,” the senators wrote.

Democrats have pushed for weeks to pass a Feinstein bill reversing a change in last year’s Patriot Act reauthorization that allows the White House to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation. That measure was supplanted as the central battleground of the issue after former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias revealed that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) called him seeking information on a public corruption probe of statehouse Democrats, which Iglesias took as an attempt to pressure him.

The ethics questions unleashed by Iglesias’s comments escalated after Washington’s ousted U.S. attorney, John McKay, told the Senate Judiciary panel on Tuesday that Ed Cassidy, then-chief of staff to House ethics committee ranking Republican Doc Hastings (Wash.), called him to check on a possible probe of that state’s 2004 governor’s race. Both Hastings and Cassidy, now an adviser to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), have denied the call was aimed at pressuring McKay.

Democrats are seeking to advance the course of their Justice oversight even as their campaign arms make political hay of the charges against Hastings, Wilson and Domenici. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over the U.S. attorneys issue, sent her own letter to Gonzales yesterday.

Sanchez and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) cited “very troubling legal questions about the conduct of officials at the Justice Department” revealed by their hearing this week, requesting testimony in public or private from the five DoJ officials singled out by the Senate as well as Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Sanchez and Conyers set a March 15 date for the testimony as well as documentation of charges made by the former prosecutors.

Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a liberal-leaning watchdog group led by a former U.S. attorney and Democratic aide, called on the House ethics panel to open a probe of Hastings and Cassidy. CREW also pressed Hastings to step down from the committee until the McKay call is investigated.

CREW noted that the House’s ethics rebuke of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over his contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration cited a precedent for chastising members who contact executive-branch employees for “impermissible political purposes.”