Congress is stepping up investigations into suggestions that political motivations were behind the Bush administration's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. VOA's Dan Robinson reports, the controversy over the firings could have significant repercussions.
U.S. attorneys are appointed to head local federal prosecutors' offices across the United States, to represent the U.S. government in criminal and civil cases, and coordinate law enforcement activities.
While they are political appointees nominated by and serving at the pleasure of the president, they are protective of their independence from partisan political pressures.
But the removal of so many at the mid-point of a presidential administration is considered highly unusual.
And the involvement of two Republican lawmakers in the controversy over the firing of the eight prosecutors, as well as denials by the U.S. Justice Department that politics played any role, combine to create another Washington political drama.
David Iglesias, dismissed as a U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, described a phone call he received before last year's mid-term congressional elections from Republican Senator Pete Domenici seeking information about the status of indictments in a corruption investigation involving Democrats in the state.
Iglesias had this exchange with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer:
SCHUMER: "And so, is it fair to say that you felt pressured to hurry subsequent cases and prosecutions as a result of the call?"
IGLESIAS: "Yes, sir, I did. I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving."
Iglesias adds that he was dismissed about six weeks later, although he makes no direct allegations of a connection between his firing and the phone call from the Republican senator.
Senator Domenici and Congresswoman Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican who also contacted Iglesias, deny their contacts were aimed at exerting political pressure.
Some of the attorneys also described pressure from the Department of Justice after some of them were quoted in media reports that appeared after Congress began to investigate the firings.
John McKay was U.S. attorney in Seattle until he was removed last December:
"[The message was] that any work with the Congress or testimony before the Congress would be seen as an escalation by the Department of Justice, and that they would respond accordingly," said Mr. McKay.
In a carefully worded joint statement, the attorneys say they regret the circumstances under which they appeared before lawmakers, while reiterating they received little or no information from the Justice Department about the reasons for their dismissal.
Carol Lam is a former U.S. attorney from San Diego involved in the prosecution on corruption charges of a former Republican congressman:
"This hearing is not a forum to engage in speculation, and we decline to speculate about the reasons," she said. "We have every confidence that the excellent career attorneys in our offices will continue to serve as aggressive, independent advocates of the best interests of the people of the United States."
The Bush administration says the dismissals were due to dissatisfaction with what it calls policy decisions the U.S. attorneys made. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has strongly denied he would remove anyone for political reasons.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy is not persuaded:
"I really believe they threaten to undermine the effectiveness and professionalism of U.S. attorney's offices around the country," he said.
Republican Senator Arlen Spector cautioned that Congress would view seriously any evidence that attorneys were removed for political reasons:
"We [in Congress] have a weighty responsibility so that we do not tamper with the established right of the president to replace U.S. attorneys, but deal with the question of whether they are being replaced because they are doing a job which is politically sensitive, or going after corruption, or being replaced for some improper motive," he noted.
Congressional Democrats are also alleging that the Bush administration is using a little-noticed provision in the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terror law renewed by Congress, to appoint political allies to U.S. attorney posts, and get around the Senate confirmation process
Depending on additional information emerging in congressional inquiries, contacts between lawmakers and U.S. attorneys could become the latest ethics issue to emerge in Congress.