Friday, March 02, 2007

House panel subpoenas fired federal prosecutors

House panel subpoenas fired federal prosecutors
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first high-profile subpoenas of the 110th Democratic-led Congress were issued on Thursday in an investigation of the firings of at least eight federal prosecutors by the Bush administration.

With critics suggesting possible political mischief in the dismissals, a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee subpoenaed four of the former U.S. attorneys to appear before the panel next week.

They include one who, according to a U.S. senator, has told congressional aides he believes he was ousted because he resisted pressure to indict in an investigation in New Mexico, which could have helped Republicans before the 2006 elections.

"We need to get to the bottom of whether competency in upholding the law is being sacrificed for political ideology," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Law.

The Justice Department denied any wrongdoing on its part.

The subpoenas were approved on a voice vote by the panel's seven Democratic members. The five Republican members did not attend the brief open meeting.

"Republicans are not going to provide votes for political subpoenas," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the full Judiciary Committee. "Every U.S. attorney serves at the pleasure of the president and they know this beforehand."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, "We have never removed a United States attorney or asked or encouraged (one) to resign, in an effort to retaliate against them or interfere with or inappropriately influence a particular investigation, criminal prosecution or civil case."

As a result of the flap, legislation has been introduced to drop a provision added to the anti-terrorism Patriot Act last year that critics have blamed for helping lead to the firings. It allows for the indefinite appointment of new prosecutors without Senate confirmation.

Among those the House panel subpoenaed was David Iglesias, recently dismissed as the U.S. attorney in New Mexico.

Iglesias has told Senate aides he believes he was fired because he rejected what he considered political pressure to bring charges in an investigation involving New Mexico Democrats shortly before last year's elections, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat,

In a Senate speech on Wednesday, Schumer said Iglesias told aides that two members of Congress had called him to ask about the probe, apparently eager for indictments.

Iglesias has not identified the two lawmakers, aides said. Democratic aides said if it was determined that lawmakers interfered with an investigation, they could face House ethics or even criminal charges.

The Justice Department has denied any political motivation. It has suggested the U.S. attorneys were fired largely because of problems in job performance. Democrats say six had good evaluations.

Overall, there are 93 U.S. attorneys responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the United States.