WASHINGTON – The Justice Department said Monday that Republican Sen. Pete Domenici called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his deputy four times to complain about a U.S. attorney who claims he was fired for not rushing a corruption probe.
Meanwhile, a watchdog group called on a Senate committee to investigate whether Domenici, of New Mexico, violated the Senate ethics manual, which advises senators to "refrain from" intervening in pending court actions.
And a House subcommittee said it was issuing new subpoenas compelling two other fired U.S. attorneys — Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona — to testify.
"Even months after the firings, we still haven't gotten straight answers from the Department of Justice, which changed its own story this weekend and admitted the firings weren't based on job performance," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee.
New details emerged Monday as lawmakers prepared to grill federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials in two sets of hearings Tuesday examining whether the Bush administration's ouster of at least eight U.S. attorneys was politically motivated.
Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he contacted his state's prosecutor, U.S. attorney David Iglesias, in October 2006 to ask about his investigation into an alleged Democratic kickback scheme. But Domenici insists he never pressured or threatened Iglesias, though he said he had long sought Iglesias' ouster.
On Monday, Justice officials confirmed portions of that account, saying Domenici had called Gonzales on three occasions — September 2005, as well as in January and April 2006 — to question whether Iglesias was "up to the job."
In the first week of October 2006, Domenici then made another "similar and very brief call" to deputy attorney general Paul McNulty about the U.S. attorney's performance, said Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
"During those calls, Senator Domenici — who initially recommended David Iglesias for the position — expressed general concerns about the performance of U.S. Attorney Iglesias and questioned whether he was 'up to the job,"' Roehrkasse said. "At no time in these calls did the senator mention the public corruption case."
Regarding Iglesias' performance, Roehrkasse said, "The department had a five-and-a-half year record in which to evaluate Mr. Iglesias and made decisions on his overall performance as a manager."
The department also said that Michael Battle — a senior Justice official who directed the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and who had personally informed the ousted U.S. attorneys of their removal — would leave his post March 16.
Battle, who has held his post since June 2005, notified U.S. attorneys of his decision in January and had informed the department last summer that he wished to pursue opportunities in the private sector, the department said. Battle was not involved in the actual decision-making that led to the prosecutors' ouster, the department said.
"His departure is not connected to the U.S. attorney controversy whatsoever," Roehrkasse said.
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is holding one of the hearings, said the timing of Battle's resignation raises questions as to whether he is "another casualty of the U.S. attorney's imbroglio."
During a briefing that deputy attorney general Paul McNulty gave to senators last month about the firings, McNulty singled out two U.S. attorneys, Iglesias and Carol Lam of California, as two who had generated "extensive congressional concern," according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak on the record about that briefing.
Iglesias, a Republican, has insisted that he received strong performance reviews. He says he is certain that the call for his ouster was neither performance-related nor the result of any misconduct.
Domenici acknowledged Sunday that he called Iglesias to ask about the criminal investigation. He said he had been frustrated with Iglesias' work and had recommended months before calling him in October that the Justice Department replace him. Domenici said Iglesias' office seemed unable to move more quickly on immigration and other high-profile cases, even as Domenici worked to get them more resources.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said it was concerned that Domenici had improperly sought political advantage by seeking to speed the investigation before the congressional elections.
"If, as it appears, Sen. Domenici pressured a sitting U.S. attorney to push a criminal case to benefit a political party, the ethics committee should take swift and harsh action," said Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director. "No member of Congress can be permitted to manipulate our system of justice for political gain."
Rule 43 of the Senate ethics manual provides general guidance on permissible contact between senators and other federal offices on behalf of constituents and others.
"Senate offices should refrain from intervening in such legal actions...until the matter has reached a resolution in the courts." The principle behind the rule, the manual states, "is that the judicial system is the appropriate forum for the resolution of legal disputes and, therefore, the system should be allowed to function without interference from outside sources."
In his statement Sunday, Domenici said he had a brief conversation with Iglesias last year and asked "if he could tell me what was going on in that investigation and give me an idea of what time frame we were looking at."
"In retrospect, I regret making that call and I apologize," Domenici said. "However, at no time in that conversation or any other conversation with Mr. Iglesias did I ever tell him what course of action I thought he should take on any legal matter. I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way."
Iglesias, who serves in the Navy Reserve and partially inspired the Tom Cruise character in the 1992 movie "A Few Good Men," said last week that he was shocked to receive two separate phone calls in mid-October from lawmakers who asked about details of the investigation and seemed eager to see an indictment before the 2006 election.