GOP Lawmakers Played a Role In U.S. Attorney Purge

The firings of eight U.S. attorneys has put the heat on top Justice Department officials—and some GOP members of Congress. The unusual mass dismissals took place late last year, but the controversy escalated last week when David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, went public with a dramatic charge: that he had gotten phone calls from two unidentified GOP lawmakers in D.C. last October, pressing him to bring indictments in a high-profile corruption case involving a prominent local Democrat before the November election. Iglesias—a former Navy prosecutor who was the model for Tom Cruise's character in "A Few Good Men"—said he refused to answer. Six weeks later, a Justice official ordered him to resign. This week, Iglesias has been subpoenaed along with three other fired prosecutors to testify before Congress. He plans to name the lawmakers who called him as Rep. Heather Wilson (who was in a tight re-election battle at the time) and Sen. Pete Domenici (who originally sponsored him for the job), according to two sources familiar with his account who asked not to be identified talking about the upcoming testimony. An aide to Wilson said "no comment." Domenici's office didn't return repeated phone calls. A senior Justice official, anonymous because of the confidential subject, confirmed to NEWSWEEK that Domenici "did express general concerns" about Iglesias to senior DOJ officials—but insisted he did not specifically complain about the corruption case. "It's absolutely 100 percent inaccurate" to suggest that Iglesias's failure to bring the corruption case against the Democrat led to his dismissal, department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

The decision to fire the U.S. attorneys en masse was made late last year by two top aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—chief of staff Kyle Sampson and deputy A.G. Paul McNulty—according to a senior department official who asked not to be identified talking about personnel. McNulty may have fueled the controversy when he told the Senate last month that most of the fired prosecutors were let go because of "performance-related issues." That infuriated some of the dismissed prosecutors (all of them Bush appointees), prompting them to defend themselves. "When I heard him say that, I lit up like a tree," said one of the prosecutors, who asked not to be identified because of pending congressional testimony. In fact, internal Justice performance evaluations seen by NEWSWEEK show that those who were fired had gotten mostly glowing reviews. Congressional Dems now smell blood. After this week's hearings featuring the fired prosecutors, "I expect we will have 100 more questions for the Justice Department," said one Democratic staffer who requested anonymity.