WASHINGTON – A Senate panel heard Tuesday what sounded like a dark tale of political intimidation at the hand of New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici.
David Iglesias, who was the U.S. attorney for New Mexico until his recent dismissal, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Domenici left him with a foreboding sense of doom after an extremely brief phone call last fall.
"He wanted to ask me about the corruption cases," Iglesias said of the senator. "He said, 'Are these going to be filed before November?' And I said I didn't think so, to which he replied, 'I'm very sorry to hear that.' And then the line went dead."
Telling Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that he took the dead line as a hang up, Schumer then asked if Iglesias thought that was a sign of unhappiness.
"I felt sick afterward. So I felt he was upset that, at hearing the answer he received," Iglesias responded.
"And so it is fair to say you felt pressured?" Schumer asked.
"Yes sir, I did. I felt leaned on. I felt pressured to get these matters moving," Iglesias said.
Iglesias last week alleged that both Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., attempted to pressure him into speeding up a corruption probe involving New Mexico Democrats.
The lawmakers acknowledge making the phone calls, but deny that they made any attempts to pressure Iglesias one way or another — although Domenici has complained about Iglesias before.
On Monday the Senate Ethics Committee issued a rare statement indicating a inquiry has begun into Domenici, but the panel reiterated that it "never comments on whether or not it has received a complaint against a member of the Senate. When the Committee receives a complaint, it follows its rules of procedure as detailed in the Senate Ethics Manual."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said his colleagues should have approached the subject differently, but it was a lesson from which all senators could learn.
Domenici apologized for the call in a statement released Sunday. Wilson apologized Monday, saying she only made the call after a constituent suggested Iglesias was intentionally delaying the probe into corruption in their state.
"My call was not about any particular case or person, nor was it motivated by politics or partisanship. I did not ask about the timing of any indictments and I did not tell Mr. Iglesias what course of action I thought he should take or pressure him in any way. The conversation was brief and professional.
"If the purpose of my call has somehow been misperceived, I am sorry for any confusion. I thought it was important for Mr. Iglesias to receive this information and, if necessary, have the opportunity to clear his name," she said.
But Iglesias is just one of eight U.S. attorneys, whose jobs are given under political appointment, who say they were fired for not being political enough. Four of them appeared before the Judiciary Committee under subpoena orders.
According to changes in the Patriot Act made last year, U.S. attorneys can be replaced for the remainder of a president's term without Senate confirmation. Democrats now accuse the White House of using the law to sack U.S. attorneys who in many cases were pursuing corruption probes against Republicans.
Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy suggested Tuesday that is true in the case of Carol Lam, the California U.S. attorney responsible for the successful bribery prosecution of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Leahy questioned whether she was taken out of her job because of her pressure on Republican elected officials.
"Who in the administration was responsible for this ill-advised purge? Was the purge orchestrated solely by the Department of Justice or was the White House involved?" Leahy asked.
Leahy's Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said he is no less worried, but when Specter asked about whether Iglesias contacted Justice Department officials with his concerns about the phone calls — rules require notification when lawmakers contact U.S. attorneys — Iglesias admitted he did not. He said he felt conflicted because Domenici had been a mentor to him and helped him in his early career and Wilson and he had political ties.
Taking Issue With the Justice Department
At the time of the firings, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told the attorneys they were being released for performance issues, which many have challenged. Of the four former U.S. attorneys who appeared Tuesday, three worked for the Justice Department for six years and one worked for four years.
"I did try to go quietly. I did feel that was my duty to the president of the United States and to the Senate and the situation changed when they began to mischaracterize the work of the people in my office and I'm here in part to defend their work," said John McKay, another attorney from Washington state who testified Tuesday. Also at the table was former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, who oversaw Alabama prosecutions.
An e-mail by Cummins released during the Senate hearing appears to show an internal conversation outlining Justice Department officials' displeasure with the U.S. attorneys who were speaking publicly about the firings, and an explanation Justice officials could use to explain the poor performances.
Cummins wrote to five other fired prosecutors that Mike Elston, chief of staff to McNulty, had called him to express his displeasure over the publicity.
"If they (DOJ) feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press or organize behind the scenes congressional pressure, then they feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off and offer public criticisms to defend their actions more fully," Cummins wrote.
The Justice Department denied that any threat, implied or otherwise, was made.
"A private and collegial conversation between Mike Elston and Bud Cummins is now somehow being twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress," said Justice department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
"Mike Elston did not tell any U.S. attorney what they should or should not say publicly about their departure," Roehrkasse added. "Any suggestion that such a conversation took place is ridiculous and not based on fact."
Cummins' e-mail also shed light on the way some of those who were fired saw the dismissals. If they voluntarily agreed to testify before Congress, "they would see that as a major escalation of the conflict meriting some kind of unspecified form of retaliation," Cummins wrote in the Feb. 20 e-mail.
Roehrkasse denied that Elston ever had any conversations with the U.S. attorneys about "what they should or should not say to the press."
"No conversation like that ever happened," Roehrkasse said.
In a joint statement ahead of Tuesday's hearings, six of the eight former prosecutors made clear that some of them had differences with the Department of Justice.
"When we had new ideas or differing opinions, we assumed that such thoughts would always be welcomed by the department and could be freely and openly debated within the halls of that great institution," the attorneys said in a joint statement released ahead of the hearings.
But in the hearing, the former federal prosecutors indicated a more stark difference with their former bosses. Skipping over Cummins because the administration has said that he was asked to resign to make room for an assistant to presidential adviser Karl Rove, Schumer asked the others if they believed performance had anything to do with their firings.
"I honestly don't know, but I don't think so," Lam responded.
"No sir," Iglesias said.
"No, Senator," McKay said.
All four, however, acknowledged that they can be fired at will.
"I think I can speak for all of us, Senator, that we serve at the pleasure of the president," Cummins said.
FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.