Thursday, July 12, 2007

White House, Democrats clash over prosecutor probe

White House, Democrats clash over prosecutor probe
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fight between the White House and Democratic-led Congress over fired U.S. prosecutors flared on Wednesday when one former official declined to answer a number of questions and another refused to even appear before lawmakers.

President George W. Bush, under fire on issues ranging from the Iraq war to immigration policy, claimed executive privilege on Monday to shield former White House political director Sara Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers from having to testify to Congress about the dismissals.

"What is the White House trying to hide?" said Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee investigating the Bush administration's dismissal last year of nine of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys.

Taylor, testifying under oath before Leahy's committee in response to a subpoena, apologized for calling one of the fired federal prosecutors "lazy."

But at Bush's direction, she refused to answer certain questions about the firings, which critics say appear to have been politically motivated -- perhaps even to influence investigations of Democratic or Republican lawmakers.

"I will answer faithfully those questions that are appropriate for a private citizen to answer while doing my best to respect the president's directive that his staff's communications be privileged," said Taylor, who stepped down as political director six weeks ago.

A short while later, Democratic lawmakers warned Miers she may face a contempt charge after her attorney advised a House of Representatives panel that the president had directed her not to appear, despite a subpoena to testify.

"The president must be nervous that Ms. Miers will accidentally divulge the truth," said Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed off on the firings as part of a plan that originated at the White House shortly after Bush was re-elected to a second term in 2004.

Bush and Gonzales have said the dismissals were justified but mishandled. With the support of Bush, Gonzales has rejected bipartisan calls to resign.


With lawmakers challenging Bush's claim of executive privilege, the battle will likely go to the courts unless the White House and Congress reach a compromise on demanded testimony and documents.

Caught in the middle, Taylor was guarded in her testimony but at times went on the offensive. "I don't believe that anybody did anything wrong or improper with respect to this issue," she said.

Taylor cited a letter from White House counsel Fred Fielding that advised her not to answer questions "concerning White House consideration, deliberations or communications, whether internal or external, relating to the possible dismissal or appointment of U.S. attorneys."

She declined to answer several questions, including whether she discussed the firings with White House political strategist Karl Rove and who had decided who should be fired.

But Taylor said she never spoke to Bush about replacing the prosecutors or attended any meeting with the president about the matter.

Taylor also responded when asked about an e-mail she wrote this year in which she said "Bud (Cummins) is lazy -- which is why we got rid of him" as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

"I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. Cummins," Taylor told the committee. "It was unkind and unnecessary."

Cummins was replaced by Tim Griffin, a former aide to Taylor and Rove.