The Nation’s Washington intern, Stephanie Condon, reports on yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the dismissal of eight US attorneys by the Bush Administation:
Senators at a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday tried to get to the bottom of whether the Bush administration inappropriately fired eight federal attorneys for political reasons.
If so, the GOP plan has backfired: at least two Republican lawmakers could be mired in scandal, and the administration, having lost eight faithful and proficient public servants, finds itself in another PR disaster.
The reasons for the firings have continued to evade the former attorneys, as well as lawmakers. There is “no accountability in the Department of Justice,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Instead, he said, there has been a “series of shifting explanations and excuses from the administration.”
“Not since the Saturday Night Massacre have we witnessed anything of this magnitude,” Leahy said, referring to the series of resignations and a dismissal during Watergate.
DOJ initially claimed the firings were performance related. Then it came out that seven of the eight attorneys had received glowing performance reviews. Now the administration claims that they did not meet certain department priorities.
The latest rationale seemed “awfully convenient” to Sen. Russ Feingold and the testifying attorneys.
“Why would I be a political liability when just a few years ago I was a political asset?” David C. Iglesias, the former U.S. Attorney for the district of New Mexico, said he wondered after his dismissal. He is convinced that his forced resignation was not performance related.
Carol Lam, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, spoke of her success in meeting the administration’s expectations for immigration trials. “Our immigration trial rate more than doubled from 2004 to 2005,” she said.
When she inquired why she was fired, she was told by the DOJ that they “didn’t think that information would be useful to me.”
The unstated reason may have been that Lam, like four of her fellow prosecutors, were leading corruption investigations into Republicans at the time of their dismissal.
Prosecutors looking into instances of Democratic corruption, like Iglesias of New Mexico, were pressured by GOP lawmakers to produce indictments before the November elections. Rep. Heather Wilson, who found herself in a tight re-election race, asked Iglesias on Oct 16, “What can you tell me about sealed indictments?” Sen. Pete Domenici asked him: “Are these going to be filed before November?” When told no, Domenici replied, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I felt sick afterwards,” said Iglesias. It now appears that both Wilson and Domenici violated Congressional ethics rules by pressuring a prosecutor in an ongoing legal investigation.
The plot gets even thicker inside Congress. Ed Cassidy, the chief of staff to Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, called dismissed prosecutor John McKay of Seattle to inquire about an investigation into voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election. McKay said he cut the call short. In February 2005, Hastings became Chairman of the House Ethics Committee. Cassidy is now a top staffer to House Majority Leader John Boehner.
Yesterday’s hearings deserve to be the first of many. It’s becoming more and more obvious that attorneygate reaches into the upper echelons of Congress and the administration.