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U.S. Attorneys May Have Been Fired over Politics


Late last year the White House fired eight U.S. attorneys around the country. That's entirely within the president's power. All federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president.


But the president's evident displeasure with some of these eight attorneys has raised a lot of eyebrows, in part because of the political nature of cases that they had handled.

Tomorrow in Congress there's going to be hearings in both the House and the Senate on these firings. And at least one of the former U.S. attorneys is expected to say he was sent packing for resisting pressure from Republican lawmakers.

BRAND: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us now to talk about this brewing scandal. And Ron, I understand one of those U.S. attorneys is going to talk about what happened in New Mexico, where Republican Senator Pete Domenici actually admitted that he did contact him yesterday.

So what's going on there?

RON ELVING: What's happening is that over the weekend word really got out and was published by Mike Isikoff at Newsweek that one of the fired attorneys - David Iglesias from New Mexico - was ready to tell Congress that he thought he was fired, as you say, because he didn't knuckle under to political pressure from a couple of powerful Republicans in his state.

And of course in response to that Pete Domenici, whose name was getting around - and of course Iglesias had to refer to two congressional members from New Mexico - there are only three. So the odds were pretty good. So Domenici came forward with a statement saying, yes, I did contact him sometime last year, turns out it was in October, just before the November election, and I did express an interest in a particular investigation that I knew he was working on. And now we know that investigation had to do with allegations of corruption against some Democratic officials. And that was - this was in the month immediately before the November election.

So according to Domenici, he just made this telephone call to Iglesias to see how that investigation might be coming along.

BRAND: And it turns out that investigation may have been related to other alleged corruption among Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico. And Domenici's colleague was facing a tough re-election battle in New Mexico, right? Republican Heather Wilson.

ELVING: That is correct. She is one of the other two, and the speculation has focussed on her. And by the way, we have tried to contact her, as I'm sure the news organizations have as well. She is traveling today, and her staff says she is unavailable. But it is expected that David Iglesias will, if asked under oath tomorrow - that's the condition he has set - will name both Senator Domenici and Heather Wilson.

And she of course had a strong interest in this in part because she was locked in a very tight re-election campaign that in fact went on for weeks after election day in the counting of the votes. And very intense contest, and she was very interested in what the atmosphere might be right around election day. Of course we're speculating here, but it's possible that an indictment of a group of Democratic officials right before the election could have hurt Democratic chances in that election in November.

BRAND: Right. Well, let's say that Iglesias does name both of them and makes these allegations. What happens next?

ELVING: We're going to open up a big can of worms. In fact, I'd say several of them. There will be investigations - ethics investigations in the House and the Senate if both these two members are named. Ethics experts say that Domenici's conduct here may have violated Senate rules, which in general bar any communication between members of Congress and federal prosecutors about a specific ongoing criminal investigation.

Some of the standards for these cases in the past, and there of course have been several, include, for example, a particular senator calling and inserting himself - that was the term that was used in one investigation - inserting himself into the criminal process.

So if this telephone call were interpreted in those terms, that could be very serious for Mr. Domenici. Also, there will be an internal investigation within the Justice Department itself, in all likelihood. And also, of course, media interest in all these cases is going to catch fire.

BRAND: Right, and also, what about the other seven attorneys who were fired, what about them?

ELVING: Well, we could hear quite a bit more about that. Keep an eye on San Diego, where the U.S. attorney indicted a Republican Congressman for bribery, and he is now serving in a federal prison.

BRAND: That's Randy Duke Cunningham. Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. You can read his column, Watching Washington, at our Web site, npr.org. Thank you very much, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.