DOJ Officials Could Be Supoenaed

US Senator of New York, Chuck Schumer, Washington, DC, 2006/5/10
The Senate Judiciary Committee will ask several Justice Department officials to testify about the firing of eight federal prosecutors and could issue subpoenas if they refuse.

The committee will discuss Thursday whether to authorize subpoenas if necessary, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Six of eight fired U.S. attorneys told House and Senate committees Tuesday that lawmakers, a high-ranking congressional aide and a Justice Department official pressured them and interfered with their work. Some of that work involved corruption cases.

The Senate Ethics Committee already is conducting a preliminary inquiry into a call last October by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to David Iglesias, since fired as the U.S. attorney for New Mexico. Domenici has hired prominent Washington attorney K. Lee Blalack to represent him.

The House Ethics Committee has not said whether it plans a similar inquiry into a call to Iglesias that month from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Both Domenici and Wilson have denied trying to influence a corruption investigation Iglesias was conducting.

Schumer chairs the Senate panel's subcommittee that oversees the court system. He named several Justice Department officials the committee would seek to question: Michael Elston, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Bill Mercer and Mike Battle.

Sampson is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, Elston is staff chief to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Mercer is associate attorney general. Goodling is Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison, and Battle is the departing director of the office that oversees the 93 U.S. attorneys.

"Now that it's clear that there was a concerted effort to purge an impressive crop of U.S. attorneys, the next step is to identify and question those responsible for hatching this scheme to use U.S. attorneys as pawns in a political chess game," Schumer said.

Tracy Schmaler, spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the committee had asked Gonzales earlier Wednesday to voluntarily make the Justice Department officials available.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said its officials for weeks have supplied members of Congress with information surrounding the firing of the eight prosecutors.

"The department yesterday publicly provided the specific performance-related reasons that led to their recent dismissals," Roehrkasse said. "It is now clear that some members of Congress are no longer interested in those facts but would rather play politics."

In a letter to Schumer dated Tuesday, Elston said he was "shocked and baffled" that a Feb. 20 conversation he had with Bud Cummins, the former U.S. attorney in Little Rock, over talking to the media about the firings could be interpreted as threatening.

"I do not understand how anything that I said to him in our last conversation in mid-February could be construed as a threat of any kind, and I certainly had no intention leaving him with that impression," Elston wrote in the two-page letter, a copy of which was obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Cummins told the Senate committee there was a "threatening undercurrent" in the call from Elston expressing displeasure with quotes attributed to Cummins in The Washington Post.

Domenici's spokesman, Chris Gallegos, said the senator hired Blalack on Feb. 28. That's when Iglesias publicly said that he believes he was forced out of his job for political reasons after refusing pressure from two members of Congress. He did not identify them at that time.

Blalack represented former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in investigations surrounding his sale of stock from his Senate blind trusts. He also represented former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., in a House ethics conviction. Cunningham is now serving an eight-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.