A House committee is compelling four of at least eight U.S. attorneys ousted from office in recent months to tell their stories under oath after one prosecutor said he believes he was fired for political reasons.
Democrats on a House Judiciary subcommittee voted 7-0 Thursday to subpoena fired prosecutors Carol Lam of California, David Iglesias of New Mexico, H.E. "Bud" Cummins of Arkansas and John McKay of Seattle. No Republicans member of the subcommittee attended the session, which lasted less than five minutes.
Iglesias said this week that he believes he was dismissed because he resisted pressure by two members of Congress to rush indictments before last year's election in an investigation of an alleged Democratic kickback scheme. He has refused to name the lawmakers who called him.
Hearing set for Tuesday
Democrats said they are troubled that the Bush administration may be punishing prosecutors for being too effective at pursuing political corruption cases.
The subpoenas are the first from the new Democratic-controlled Congress. The prosecutors are scheduled to appear at a Tuesday hearing with other witnesses, including a representative from the Justice Department.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also asked the same four prosecutors to testify Tuesday.
Cummins, U.S. attorney for Arkansas' Eastern District from 2001-2006, said Thursday that he and other fired attorneys had "politely declined" previous requests from the committee. He said he "didn't have any desire to stir up the controversy any further."
"If given the choice, I'd elect to stay home and mind my own business," Cummins told The Associated Press. "Now that I'm under subpoena, I'll go and give cooperative, truthful answers."
When asked if officials in the Justice Department or White House had asked him to decline the earlier requests, Cummins said he had no comment.
Effort to diminish independence
Democrats contend the removals were politically motivated. They say a flaw in the USA Patriot Act allows the president to sidestep Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys in some cases.
"Is this an effort to diminish the independence of the people who uphold our laws? It's very troubling to me that there seems to be this undercurrent here," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. She heads the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.
Republicans said the hearing was a case of "political grandstanding." The committee's top Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, said the GOP would not help "provide votes for political subpoenas."
The Justice Department has denied that Iglesias was asked to resign because he failed to bring an indictment. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other department officials have defended their decisions to replace other prosecutors.
Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the Justice Department has "been very forthcoming with members of Congress about personnel decisions related to U.S. attorneys," citing hearings, multiple briefings, letters and other documents that already have been supplied.
"We have stated numerous times that we have never removed a United States attorney in an effort to retaliate against them or inappropriately interfere with a particular investigation, criminal prosecution or civil case," Roehrkasse said. "Any suggestion otherwise is completely wrong."
Sanchez said the conversations between Iglesias and lawmakers could represent improper communication and violate ethics laws.
Iglesias told The Associated Press on Thursday that he would not give any more details until he testified. "I will identify the members if I am directly asked and they compel me to testify," he said.
Political or perrformance decision?
In Cummins' case, he said he was "asked to resign to make room for another person." That person was Tim Griffin, a former military lawyer who worked in the White House under Bush adviser Karl Rove as a special assistant to the president.
Griffin said earlier this month he wouldn't seek Senate confirmation, saying a "partisan circus" had formed around his appointment. However, the USA Patriot Act provision providing for Griffin's appointment would allow him to remain in the position until the end of Bush's term.
Cummins, now consulting for a private company he declined to identify, said suggestions that the lawyers were replaced for unsatisfactory performance reviews "don't hold water." However, he said his experience didn't sour him politically.
It "only affects my opinions of the individuals involved in those decisions, not my commitment to the cause of conservatism," Cummins said.