Justice Department Firings: A Cover-up?

Bud Cummins never had any intention of making a fuss. A folksy Arkansas lawyer, Cummins had been abruptly fired last year as U.S. attorney in Little Rock to create a slot for a former top aide to Karl Rove. But Cummins is a loyal Republican; he knows how the game is played in Washington, so he kept quiet. Then last month, as the press picked up on the story of Cummins and seven other fired U.S. attorneys, he was quoted in a newspaper story defending his colleagues. Cummins got a phone call from the Justice Department that he found vaguely menacing.

It came from Michael Elston, a top Justice official. Cummins says Elston expressed concern that he and the dismissed attorneys were talking to reporters about what had happened to them. Elston, Cummins says, suggested this might not be a good idea; Justice officials might feel compelled to "somehow pull their gloves off" and retaliate against the prosecutors by publicly trashing them. "I was tempted to challenge him," Cummins e-mailed colleagues later that day, "and say something movie-like such as 'are you threatening ME???' " (Elston acknowledges he told Cummins, "it's really a shame that all this has to come out in the newspaper," but says "I didn't intend to threaten him.")

Was there an attempted cover-up? The disclosure of Cummins's e-mail at a Senate hearing last week only stoked the controversy surrounding a Justice Department already under fire for politicizing the legal process. Even Republican lawmakers stepped forward to criticize the attorney general's handling of the matter. "It was clumsy and unseemly," Sen. Lindsey Graham tells NEWSWEEK. By the end of the week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had made a rare acknowledgment of error and agreed to let a congressional probe into the firings move forward.

A key question for investigators now: did Justice officials, with involvement from the White House, fire attorneys in retaliation for actions that didn't favor the GOP? David Iglesias, who was dumped as U.S. attorney in New Mexico, says Sen. Peter Domenici called him and pressed him to bring indictments in a corruption case involving local Democrats before last November's election. When he didn't give the answer Domenici wanted, "the line went dead." A senior Justice official, who didn't want to be named discussing sensitive legal issues, says Domenici had earlier complained to the deputy attorney general about Iglesias's record on "public corruption." (Domenici apologized for his call to Iglesias, but says he "never pressured" him.)

Another fired prosecutor, John McKay, of Seattle, tells NEWSWEEK that local Republicans pressured him to launch a criminal probe of voting fraud that would tilt a deadlocked Washington governor's race. "They wanted me to go out and start arresting people," he says, adding that he refused to do so because there was "no evidence." After McKay was fired in December, he says he also got a phone call from a "clearly nervous" Elston asking if he intended to go public: "He was offering me a deal: you stay silent and the attorney general won't say anything bad about you." (Elston says he "can't imagine" how McKay got that impression. The call was meant to reassure McKay that the A.G. would not detail the reasons for the firings.)

Justice officials say the dismissals were for "job-performance reasons," as well as for failure to pursue Bush administration policy priorities. But where did the list of particular U.S. attorneys to fire come from? Two senior Justice officials, who didn't want to be named discussing the dismissals, tell NEWSWEEK that Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff, developed the list of eight prosecutors to be fired last October—with input from the White House. In a recent statement, the White House said it approved the firings, but didn't sign off on specific names.

Gonzales is now being accused of falling down on the job himself. Even as he struggled last week to calm the outrage over the fired attorneys, another scandal broke out: an investigation by the Justice inspector general showed that the FBI had repeatedly misused a Patriot Act provision to secretly collect personal data—including financial records—from citizens without a judicial warrant. Gonzales said there was "no excuse" for the bureau's actions, and he demanded that FBI Director Robert Mueller find out "what went wrong and who is accountable." Asked by reporters whether Gonzales was considering firing Mueller or other senior officials for the apparent intrusion on civil liberties, the A.G. didn't answer. The issue of "job performance," it seems, is becoming an ever more awkward subject at the Justice Department.