By Tom Hamburger and David G. Savage
Newly released documents show Bush’s top political aide focused on GOP calls to oust New Mexico’s top U.S. prosecutor. Other Bush aides lobbied the Justice Dept. on other issues, the documents show.
Reporting from Washington — Karl Rove and other officials in George W. Bush’s White House played an active role in the firing of the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico, according to documents released Tuesday that also show Bush political aides tried to influence Justice Department officials on other matters.
The e-mails and interview transcripts made public by the House Judiciary Committee show Rove and other White House aides paying particular attention to complaints from Republican officials in New Mexico that U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias had failed to help their election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud.
Iglesias was fired in 2006, one of nine dismissals of U.S. attorneys that Democrats said were motivated by politics. The firings became the subject of a long-running political fight in Washington.
House Democrats called Rove the driving force in several of the firings and said the new evidence confirmed that partisan politics played an unusual role in the dismissals.
“Honest and well-performing U.S. attorneys were fired for petty patronage, political horse-trading and, in the most egregious case of political abuse of the U.S. attorney corps — that of U.S. Attorney Iglesias — because he refused to use his office to help Republicans win elections,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in a written statement.
Rove, who was Bush’s top political advisor, has said he merely passed objections to the Justice Department about some of the U.S. attorneys. In a statement Tuesday, he said the newly released documents supported his position.
“They show politics played no role in the Bush administration’s removal of U.S. attorneys,” Rove said, “that I never sought to influence the conduct of any prosecution, and that I played no role in deciding which U.S. attorneys were retained and which replaced.”
When the unusual midterm firings of the U.S. attorneys came to light early in 2007, the Bush administration denied that the White House played a role. Then-Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales initially referred to the dismissals as a routine personnel matter.
But several congressional hearings and a lengthy report by the Justice Department’s inspector general released last year showed that Bush aides in both the White House and the Justice Department were closely involved in the firings.
The new documents were produced as part of an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee, which subpoenaed Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and questioned both in recent weeks.
A current federal prosecutor, U.S. Atty. Nora Dannehy, also has been investigating the firings to see if any laws were violated. The House documents were forwarded to Dannehy, who has already interviewed Rove and Miers.
Democrats say the documents show that top Bush administration officials breached a tradition of generally keeping U.S. attorneys free of political interference.
In the case of Iglesias, the new documents show that White House officials held an active conversation about his performance.
“I would really like to move forward with getting rid of NM USATTY,” wrote J. Scott Jennings, a Rove aide in the Office of Political Affairs, to another White House aide, referring to Iglesias. New Mexico lawmakers “are really angry over his lack of action on the voter fraud stuff. Iglesias has done nothing. We are getting killed out there.”
Miers told House members at a closed hearing that Rove called her while he was on a trip through New Mexico. He was “getting barraged” with complaints about Iglesias and was “agitated” about him.
“It was clear to me that he felt like he had a serious problem and that he wanted something done about it,” Miers told House members. She passed Rove’s complaints to the Justice Department.
The documents also show that former Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) called both Rove and Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, to lobby for Iglesias’ removal.
White House officials were consulted in at least some of the other firings of U.S. attorneys, according to the new documents.
In a 2005 e-mail to Miers, a colleague says that “Karl is fine” with a plan to replace Todd Graves, then the U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo. Other e-mails say that Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) had requested that Graves be replaced.
The 94 U.S. attorneys are appointees of the president and can be ousted by him. By tradition, however, these federal prosecutors are left to carry out their duties without political interference from Washington. The usual term of appointment is four years.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a former prosecutor who led the judiciary committee’s questioning of Rove, said the panel’s work confirmed that Rove’s involvement was much greater than he had admitted before.
“He was the dominant voice,” Schiff said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “The White House involvement began earlier than we had thought, and their input went well beyond what they had stated publicly.”
The documents released Tuesday also reveal an unusual White House effort to get the Justice Department to help a beleaguered Arizona Republican congressman on the eve of the 2006 election.
News accounts in early fall 2006 had reported that then-Rep. Rick Renzi was under FBI investigation for pursuing a federal land transfer in which he had a hidden financial stake.
According to Miers’ interview with the House committee, one of Rove’s subordinates contacted Miers, who called then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty to seek a statement that would have “vindicated” Renzi.
Miers said she was concerned about leaks to the news media that the FBI was investigating Renzi, and she called McNulty to ask whether someone in Renzi’s situation could be “vindicated in the event that nothing is going on.” Miers said she was told that this kind of statement was not customary under Justice Department guidelines.
Nonetheless, the transcript of Miers’ interview shows that a few days after she made her request, unnamed Justice Department officials told reporters in Arizona that the Renzi investigation was preliminary and that news stories about the inquiry contained unspecified inaccuracies.
Renzi was reelected, but in February 2008 he was indicted in a federal conspiracy case that alleged he used his position in Congress to influence a federal land deal that yielded him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He later stepped down from his congressional committee assignments and left office when his term expired after the November election. He has yet to come to trial.
The newly released Judiciary Committee documents could also become an issue in the closely fought race for governor in New Jersey, where a former Republican U.S. attorney, Chris Christie, is running against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.
In his testimony last month, Rove revealed that Christie talked with him twice in the last few years about running for governor. By tradition, U.S. attorneys eschew politics after they assume office.
Christie has recently been fending off attacks from Corzine that he was close to the Bush White House.
“I talked to him twice in the last couple of years . . . not regarding his duties as U.S. attorney, but regarding his interest in running for governor,” Rove told the House committee, “and he asked me questions about who — who were good people that knew about running for governor that he could talk to.”
Rove’s testimony has already been noted in New Jersey. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor told the Newark Star-Ledger on Tuesday that Rove’s statements appear to contradict Christie’s claim that he was not preparing to run for governor while still serving as U.S. attorney.