Vindication for Iglesias on U.S. Attorney Firings?

The former federal prosecutor at the center of the controversy over the 2006 U.S. attorney firings said today that he feels fully vindicated by newly disclosed e-mails from the Bush White House showing that Karl Rove and his deputies were actively involved in arranging his dismissal from the Justice Department. "This confirms my worst nightmares," David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, said in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "There were improper and potentially illegal—as in criminally illegal—reasons for my removal."

His comments came shortly after the House Judiciary Committee released hundreds of pages of interview transcripts of Bush White House officials and internal e-mails that were obtained by the panel earlier this year and kept confidential until today. The material suggests, at a minimum, an often aggressive effort by Rove's office for more than a year and a half to have Iglesias removed as the chief federal prosecutor in New Mexico following a barrage of complaints from Republican Party officials and members of Congress that he was not doing enough to prosecute voter-fraud cases and bring indictments that would hurt Democrats and boost the GOP's prospects in the key swing state.

Iglesias said today that he was "surprised" last month when Rove insisted in a rare joint interview to reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post that he was merely a "conduit" of complaints about Iglesias, rather than a driving force behind the decision to fire the prosecutor. "This doesn't sound like he was merely a conduit," Iglesias said about the newly released e-mails and testimony. "This sounds like he had a very active role."

Rove, in a statement emailed to reporters Tuesday night, said the newly released documents "show politics played no role in the Bush Administration's removal of U.S. Attorneys, 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." Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, also dismissed the significance of the new material. "Despite all evidence to the contrary, House Democrats continue to falsely accuse former Bush administration official Karl Rove of wrongdoing in the dismissal of several U.S. Attorneys," said Smith in a statement. "But the interviews reveal no evidence of wrongdoing in the firings."

Whether the new material is enough to help a special Justice Department prosecutor bring any criminal cases is far from clear. For the past year the prosecutor, Nora Dannehy, has been investigating whether any Bush administration officials engaged in obstruction of justice in the decision to fire Iglesias and other U.S. attorneys. But there are some passages that raise fresh questions about the involvement of Rove's office. "I would really like to move forward with getting rid of NM USATTY," Rove's deputy, Scott Jennings, wrote in an e-mail on June 28, 2005, to one of his colleagues, Tim Griffin, complaining about Iglesias's refusal to bring vote-fraud cases that had been pushed by New Mexico Republicans.

In perhaps the most significant passage in the new material, former White House counsel Harriet Miers—questioned by the judiciary committee for the first time in June—described getting a phone call from a "very upset" Rove telling her that Iglesias was "a serious problem and he wanted something done about it."

"My best recollection is that he was very agitated about the U.S. attorney in New Mexico," Miers said in her interview with the committee, describing the phone call she got from Rove while he was on a trip to New Mexico. Miers said she then called Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney general at the time, to pass along the complaints that Rove had gotten from New Mexico Republicans that "the guy wouldn't do his job" on "voter fraud" cases. Although Miers could not remember when she got the phone call from Rove, his New Mexico trip was on Sept. 30, 2006, barely a month before Iglesias was placed by the Justice Department on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired.

The firing of nine U.S. attorneys provoked a political firestorm in 2007 that eventually led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, largely because of perceptions that he and other Bush administration officials had misled Congress about the reasons for the unusual mass dismissals. At first, Gonzales and other Justice officials insisted that the U.S. attorneys had been dismissed because of "performance" problems and that the White House had not played a significant role in the decision to remove them.

But a Justice Department inspector-general report last year concluded that Gonzales, his chief of staff Kyle Sampson and others had made "misleading," and in some cases false, statements to Congress about the firings—and that Iglesias's dismissal in particular was deserving of further investigation because it followed complaints by New Mexico Republican Party officials that he was not doing enough to aid the party's prospects in the 2006 elections. The Justice inspector general, Glenn Fine, said in his report, however, that he could not get to the bottom of the U.S. attorney controversy because key White House players—including Rove and Miers—had refused to be interviewed, citing executive privilege. After the House voted to find the Bush White House in contempt of Congress and filed a lawsuit to enforce its subpoenas, the dispute was resolved earlier this year when the internal White House e-mails were turned over and Rove and Miers agreed to be interviewed.

There is nothing in the material released today that conclusively shows why, in early November 2006, Iglesias was put on the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired. But another document points to what critics say was the partisan considerations that went into the decision: an Oct. 15, 2006, e-mail from Jennings, Rove's deputy, passing along a complaint from Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, suggesting that Iglesias had failed to bring an election-eve indictment that would damage her electoral opponent, Patricia Madrid, the state's Democratic attorney general. Jennings told Rove in the e-mail that another GOP staffer wanted to know "why should the US attorney in New Mexico be shy about doing his job on Madrid."