By Susan Crabtree and Elana Schor - 04/03/07 08:04 PM EDT
Kyle Sampson’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week suggests that congressional pressure may have played a significant role in the firing of a New Mexico prosecutor.
Statements from Sampson, who served as chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before resigning last month, to the Judiciary Committee last Thursday are placing additional pressure on New Mexico GOP Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, as well as Gonzales, White House political adviser Karl Rove and ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers, to explain what roles, if any, they played in the firing of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, according to legal experts.
Under intense Democratic questioning during the hearing, Sampson admitted that he regretted placing Iglesias’s name on the list of those slated for dismissal. He also said Gonzales had informed him that he had received a complaint from Rove that three U.S. attorneys, including Iglesias, were not doing enough to pursue voter-fraud cases. Justice Department e-mails and Sampson’s testimony also show that sometime between Oct. 17 and Election Day, Iglesias’s name was added to the list along with three names that were redacted in the e-mails.
Domenici and Wilson, who was running in a tight reelection race, called Iglesias just a few weeks prior to the Nov. 7 election. Iglesias said they called to inquire about whether he was going to issue indictments in a pending high-profile corruption investigation involving a Democrat in New Mexico, a line of questioning he said was both improper and threatening.
Domenici and Wilson dispute the nature of the calls; the Senate Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into the matter, while members of the House ethics panel have refused to comment on whether they’ve launched a probe.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know yet between when Sen. Domenici hung up the phone and when David Iglesias was fired,” said Steve Dettelbach, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Baker & Hostetler LLP. Dettelbach served as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) from 2001 to 2003 and spent 15 years as a career prosecutor at the Department of Justice under both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
A spokesman for Wilson said she stands by her earlier statement that she “never discussed this matter or anything related to Mr. Iglesias’s performance as U.S. attorney with the Justice Department at any time.”
In a statement released in early March, Domenici said he had recommended Iglesias’s dismissal to the Justice Department several months before he placed the call to Iglesias about the corruption case over what he perceived as a backload of unresolved cases, especially in the areas of immigration and illegal drugs.
Domenici’s lawyer, Lee Blalack, declined to discuss exactly who Domenici contacted at Justice or whether he contacted anyone at the White House. He said the Senate Judiciary Committee has not asked Domenici to testify, but declined to say whether the Ethics Committee had interviewed Domenici.
The House Judiciary staff started interviewing Justice officials Friday and will continue to do so over the recess. Gonzales is slated to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee April 17 and the House and Senate panels have readied subpoenas for testimony from Rove and other White House officials.
In addition to administration officials, Gerry Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and a 21-year veteran of the Justice Department, said Domenici’s and Wilson’s testimony is essential to figuring out the rest of the story surrounding Iglesias’s firing.
“[Iglesias’s] dismissal from the Justice Department — that is the one clear-cut example of a dismissal that appears to be based almost entirely on political motivation and political interference,” Hebert said.
President Bush insisted yesterday that there is “no credible evidence of wrongdoing” in the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys.
“Pete Domenici needs to be placed under oath and asked whether he talked to Bush or Gonzales or Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, and what he said,” Hebert said.
To get the whole story, Dettelbach said the Senate Judiciary Committee likely would want to hear from as many people as possible, including Domenici and Wilson. He conceded that jurisdictional lines between the Ethics and Judiciary committees could prevent both panels from seeking testimony from Domenici. Asking a sitting lawmaker to testify publicly before a committee about a charge against him is not unprecedented, he noted, citing the Keating Five scandal, in which five senators endured 23 days of public testimony before the Ethics Committee.
“It would be better to hear everyone’s version of what occurred on that phone call and afterward,” Dettelbach said.
Sampson’s testimony did nothing to diminish Bush’s defense of Gonzales’s handling of the matter or his own right to fire U.S. attorneys.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” he said. “On the other hand, there has been no credible evidence of any wrongdoing … there will be more hearings to determine what I’ve just said: no credible evidence of any wrongdoing.”
Leahy spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the White House has failed to provide relevant documents and interviews with key staffers. “If the White House is so certain of the appropriateness of the administration’s handling of these matters, why are they keeping this important information from Congress and the public?” she asked.