The Department of Justice can fire a U.S. attorney and expect him or her to go quietly. The federal prosecutors are appointed by the president, after all, and serve at his pleasure. But fire a bunch of them at once and start shredding their reputations—that's dangerous. Today, four of the Bush administration's formerly loyal U.S. attorneys showed up to testify before Congress and raised the lid on DOJ and Republicans in office. All sorts of things crawled out. And after years of living in one-party Washington—and logging hours at snoozer Republican-controlled committee hearings—I confess, it was a thrill to watch. Hooray for divided government!
David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney from New Mexico, was the star witness at this morning's Senate hearing about the firing of eight—or now maybe nine—U.S. attorneys. Iglesias was square-jawed and resolute, so much so that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., didn't really need to mention that the former prosecutor and U.S. Navy lawyer is a partial model for the Tom Cruise character in A Few Good Men (though, of course, Schumer did). Iglesias gave an account of a phone call he received from Sen. Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, before the November election:
1) Domenici called Iglesias in late October, at his house—the first time in 10 years as a prosecutor that he'd taken a call from a member of Congress on his home line.
2) The senator wanted to talk about a pending corruption investigation of government officials who just happened to be Democrats—an investigation that, Iglesias said, was a "huge battle" in Republican Rep. Heather Wilson's tight race for re-election. Domenici asked Iglesias, "Are these charges going to be filed before November?" Iglesias said he didn't think so.
3) Domenici responded, "I'm very sorry to hear that." And then the line went dead. Domenici had hung up on Iglesias. "I felt sick afterward," the former prosecutor said. "I felt leaned on. I felt pressure to get these matters moving."
Domenici has denied pressuring Iglesias. As for Wilson, she had called Iglesias two weeks earlier. She said this week that she asked Iglesias about allegations from a constituent that he "was intentionally delaying corruption prosecutions." Iglesias remembers otherwise. The phone call wasn't about allegations of a delay, he testified. Wilson "wanted to talk about sealed indictments" he might have had in the corruption case. Iglesias listened to her questions, and "red flags went up inside my head." It was as if Wilson had asked a government nuclear scientist "about secret launch codes."
If the calls from Domenici and Wilson were so alarming, why didn't Iglesias report them to DOJ? Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wanted to know. Ethical rules bar members of Congress from asking prosecutors about pending investigations, and DOJ guidelines apparently instruct prosecutors to report such contacts. Iglesias said he knew that but at the time felt "conflicted" about his competing loyalties. Pete Domenici was his longtime mentor. Heather Wilson was his longtime ally. He didn't want to turn on them.
"What made you change your mind?" Specter asked. It was the senator's least effective moment as the Bush administration's defender. "I've always been trained that loyalty is a two-way street," Iglesias answered. "I started thinking: Why am I protecting these people who not only did me wrong but did wrong to the system for appointing U.S. attorneys?"