Gonzales to Face Continued Scrutiny in Criminal Probe

A special prosecutor appointed Monday to further probe the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys will hopefully find enough evidence to pursue criminal charges against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and aides who had served with him at the agency, said David Iglesias, the former New Mexico U.S. Attorney whose dismissal in December 2006 was singled out as the most egregious case of partisan politics in a scathing 356-page report by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog.

The long-awaited report, the culmination of an 18-month joint investigation by the Inspector General Glenn Fine and OPR head H. Marshall Jarrett into the firings of nine U.S. Attorneys two years ago concluded that Gonzales, his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson, and former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, failed “to provide accurate and truthful statements about the [U.S. Attorney] removals and their role in the process.” All three resigned in disgrace last year.

In April 2007, Gonzales had testified that he could not recall certain details related to the firings.

The report alleged that several Republican lawmakers, including Missouri Sen.Christopher “Kit” Bond played a part in the firings of U.S. attorneys in their home states.

“Our investigation found significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor in the removal of several of the U.S. Attorneys,” the report said.

The report concluded that Iglesias’s firing was the most “controversial” and “troubling.” His dismissal, according to the report, was “engineered” by New Mexico lawmakers Sen. Pete Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson and former White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Iglesias said he did not have confidence at first that the joint investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector Genera; and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) was going to be conducted thoroughly.

“I had to get talked into doing it,” said Iglesias, who published a book on the firings, In-Justice: Inside the Scandal That Rocked The Bush Administration. “I felt nothing was going to happen. But I was told that the people who work in those offices are career people. They are not politicos.”

But after reading the report Iglesias said he was pleased with the conclusions.

“I’m pleased at the recommendation that the investigation move forward and pleased at the outcome,” Iglesias said in an interview Monday after reading the report. “It’s a logical next step to begin a criminal investigation. I hope that the special prosecutor appointed to investigate this case will uncover evidence of criminal violations. That person will have subpoena power and that will make a big difference.”

“The report corroborated what I have been saying all along: that my removal had nothing to do with my [job] performance,” Iglesias said. “The Justice Department needs to ensure that this illegal process never happens again and they need to make sure U.S. Attorneys are protected” from undue political interference.

Numerous unanswered questions revolving around Iglesias’s firing, however, formed the basis for the recommendation of a special prosecutor be appointed to conduct a further investigation.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed Nora Dannehy, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut, to continue the investigation. He resisted calls from Democratic lawmakers to appoint a special prosecutor from outside the Justice Department.

“It is important to note that we were unable to fully investigate these issues because of the refusal by several former key White House officials, including Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, to cooperate with our investigation,” the report says.

“In addition, the White House would not provide us any internal documents and e-mails relating to the removals of Iglesias or the other U.S. Attorneys,” according to the report. “Our investigation was also hindered by the refusal of Senator Domenici and his Chief of Staff to agree to an interview by us. In addition, we were not able to interview [former DOJ White House liaison] Monica Goodling, who also declined to cooperate with our investigation.

“As a result, important gaps remain in the facts regarding Iglesias’s removal as U.S. Attorney. As discussed at the end of this chapter, we believe this investigation should be pursued further, and we recommend that a counsel specially appointed by the Attorney General work with us to further examine the reasons behind Iglesias’s removal and whether criminal laws were violated.”

The report said White House officials stonewalled the DOJ’s investigation by refusing to turn over internal emails and other documents that would have shed light on the hands-on role the Bush administration played in the dismissals.

“During our investigation, we also learned that in early March 2007 White House Associate Counsel Michael Scudder (a former Department attorney) was directed by the White House Counsel to prepare a chronology of events related to the U.S. Attorney removals,” according to the report. “According to the White House Counsel’s Office, the chronology was developed so that the White House could respond to inquiries about the matter. To accomplish that task quickly, Scudder interviewed several people in the Department and within the White House, including Karl Rove. As a result of his interviews and review of documents, in March 2007 Scudder produced at least two drafts of a memorandum setting out a chronology of events related to the removals of the U.S. Attorneys.

“Scudder also provided these drafts to the Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). When OLC prepared its own more extensive chronology of events, it used Scudder’s draft memoranda to supplement its efforts. According to e-mail records, around March 20, 2007, as part of Attorney General Gonzales’s effort to understand the circumstances surrounding the removals, OLC provided Scudder’s memorandum to Gonzales. However, Gonzales told us he did not recall seeing Scudder’s chronology. We asked OLC for a copy of the memorandum and all the drafts, but OLC declined, stating that the White House Counsel’s Office had directed OLC not to provide them to us. 

“We thereafter engaged in discussions with the White House Counsel’s Office during this investigation in an attempt to obtain the Scudder memorandum. The White House Counsel’s Office agreed to read one paragraph of the memorandum to us, and provided us with two paragraphs of information concerning Rove that had already been reported publicly, but declined to provide any further information from the memorandum. Eventually, the White House Counsel’s Office provided us with a heavily redacted version of the document. We believe the refusal to provide us with an unredacted copy of this document hampered our investigation.”

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy said the IG/OPR report “verifies what our oversight efforts this Congress showed, that partisan, political interests in the prosecution of voter fraud and public corruption by the White House and some at the Department played a role in many of these firings.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said he will convene a hearing Friday to hear testimony about the report’s findings.

Conyers has been engaged in a legal battle with the White House for the past year over Miers’s testimony before his committee about her role in the attorney firings. A three-judge appeals court panel – two Republican judges and one Democrat – granted the White House a stay of a lower-court order that would have required Miers to testify before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The case is still pending.

Jarrettt and Fine said in a joint statement that their “report did not conclude that the evidence we have uncovered thus far establishes that a violation of any criminal statute has occurred. However, we believe that the evidence collected in this investigation is not complete and that serious allegations have not been fully investigated or resolved.”

Although U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, evidence surfaced over the past two years that showed the firings was largely the result of federal prosecutors’ resistance to allow partisan politics to dictate their work.

Moreover, the report said that several crucial witnesses who played a role in the dismissals refused to be interviewed. Former White House political adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, and others, declined interview requests.

Fine and Jarrett do not have subpoena power and therefore could not compel the officials to discuss the firings.

Additionally, the report says Sampson, Goznales’s chief of staff, gave “misleading after-the-fact explanations for why Iglesias was placed on the list” of U.S. Attorney chosen for dismissal.

We “question whether Sampson provided us the full story about Iglesias’s placement on the list, as well as the reasons for other U.S. Attorney removals,” the report says.

The report also notes that Congresswoman Heather Wilson, R-NM, personally enlisted Rove’s help in getting Iglesias fired.

In congressional testimony, Iglesias said he received telephone calls from New Mexico’s Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson before the 2006 elections inquiring about the timing of a possible corruption indictment against a Democratic official in the state.

Iglesias told Domenici and Wilson that he could not discuss the issue of indictments with them. Sometime after Oct. 17, 2006, according to the report, Iglesias’s name was added to a list of U.S. Attorneys selected for termination.

“I felt leaned on,” Iglesias told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. “I felt pressure to get these matters moving.”

Wilson and Domenici have publicly acknowledged that they phoned Iglesias in October 2006 to inquire about ongoing probes involving a popular Democrat.

“She asked me, ‘what can you tell me about sealed indictments?'” Iglesias said. “The second she said any question about sealed indictments, red flags went up in my head. We specifically cannot talk about indictments until they are made public in general. It’s like calling up a [nuclear] scientist … to talk about those secret codes. The launch codes.”

The IG/OPR report said after Wilson made the call to Iglesias she contacted Rove.

“On November 15, 2006, Representative Wilson attended a White House breakfast meeting with a dozen or so Republican members of Congress who had just won closely contested elections,” the report says. “Rove was also present. Wilson told us that as the meeting was breaking up she approached him and said, “Mr. Rove, for what it’s worth, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico is a waste of breath.” Rove responded, “That decision has already been made. He’s gone.

“According to Wilson’s calendar, the meeting occurred from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Department e-mail records show that Sampson sent the November “USA Replacement Plan” that first included Iglesias’s name to Miers at the White House on November 15, 2006, at 10:55 a.m. There is no record of the list being provided to the White House before then.

“Yet, neither Sampson nor any of the other Department or White House officials we interviewed said that the White House was told that Iglesias had been added to the removal list before then. As described previously, Miers and Rove declined our requests for an interview. Thus, we were unable to determine how or why Rove knew that Iglesias was slated to be replaced when he spoke to Wilson earlier in the morning on November 15.”

“We believe the evidence we uncovered showed that Iglesias was removed because of complaints to the Department of Justice and the White House by New Mexico Republican members of Congress and party activists about Iglesias’s handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases,” the report says. “We concluded that the other reasons proffered by the Department after his removal were after-the-fact rationalizations that did not actually contribute to Iglesias’s removal. Moreover, we determined that the Department never objectively assessed the complaints raised by New Mexico politicians and activists about Iglesias’s actions on the voter fraud or public corruption cases, or even asked Iglesias about them.

“Rather, based upon these complaints alone and the resulting “loss of confidence” in Iglesias, the Department placed Iglesias on the removal list and told him to resign along with the other U.S. Attorneys. As we discuss below, by these actions we believe Department leaders abdicated their responsibility to ensure that prosecutorial decisions would be based on the law, the evidence, and Department policy, not political pressure.”

The investigation could not determine conclusively why John McKay, the former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, was fired. But the probe found that his ouster was due, in part, to the fact that he would not convene a federal grand jury and secure indictments of alleged voter fraud in the 2004 governor’s race in the state in which Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by a margin of 129 votes.

In an interview last year, McKay said there were some Republicans in his district with close ties to the White House who demanded he launch an investigation into the election and bring charges against individuals for voter fraud, despite the fact there was no evidence to support the claims of vote-rigging.

He said he believes that he was not selected for a federal judgeship by local Republicans in Washington state last year because he did not file criminal charges against Democrats for voter fraud related to the 2004 governor’s election. McKay said he felt he was not being treated fairly, and requested a meeting with then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers to discuss the issue, as well as his application for US district judge in his home state.

“I asked for a meeting with Harriet Miers, whom I had known since work I had been involved in with the American Bar Association, and she immediately agreed to see me in August of 2006,” McKay told me. McKay said that when he met with Miers and her deputy William Kelley at the White House, the first thing they asked him was, “Why would Republicans in the state of Washington be angry with you?”

That was “a clear reference to the 2004 governor’s election,” McKay said in characterizing Miers and her deputy’s comments. “Some believed I should convene a federal grand jury and bring innocent people before the grand jury.”

“All of my actions as United States attorney had been coordinated with the Department of Justice,” McKay told me. He said he explained that to Miers and Kelley, and informed them that there was no evidence of voter fraud to support launching a federal inquiry into the election.

The meeting with Miers and Kelley did not have a positive impact on McKay’s request to be appointed a judge at US District Court. Instead, McKay said it appears that he landed on the so-called list of US attorneys to be fired just a few weeks after his meeting with Miers and Kelley.

McKay said he believes Gonzales lied to Congress about the circumstances behind the firings in order to protect the administration.

The report concluded that the Justice Department’s “removal of the U.S. Attorneys and the controversy it created severely damaged the credibility of the Department and raised doubts about the integrity of Department prosecutive decisions.”

“We believe the primary responsibility for these serious failures rest with senior Department leaders – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty – who abdicated their responsibility to adequately oversee the process and to ensure that the reasons for removal of each U.S. Attorney were supportable and not improper,” the report concluded. “These removals were not a minor personnel matter – they were an unprecedented removal of a group of high-level Department officials that was certain to raise concerns if not handled properly. Yet, neither the Attorney General nor the Deputy Attorney eneral provided adequate oversight or supervision of this process.”

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