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White House allegedly backed firings

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Iglesias (The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – The White House approved the firings of seven U.S attorneys late last year after senior Justice Department officials identified the prosecutors they believed were not doing enough to carry out President Bush’s policies on immigration, firearms and other issues, White House and Justice Department officials said Friday.

The list of prosecutors was assembled last fall, based largely on complaints from members of Congress, law enforcement officials and career Justice Department lawyers, administration officials said.

One of the complaints came from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who specifically raised concerns with the Justice Department last fall about the performance of then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico, according to administration officials and Domenici’s office.

Iglesias has alleged that two unnamed New Mexico lawmakers pressured him in October to speed up the indictments of Democrats before the elections. Domenici has declined to comment on that allegation.

Since the mass firings were carried out three months ago, Justice Department officials have consistently portrayed them as personnel decisions based on the prosecutors’ “performance-related” problems. But, Friday, officials revealed the White House’s role in the matter and acknowledged that the ousters were based primarily on the administration’s unhappiness with the prosecutors’ policy decisions.

“At the end of the day, this was a decision to pick the prosecutors we felt would most effectively carry out the department’s policies and priorities in the last two years,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

Officials portrayed the firings as part of a routine process, saying the White House did not encourage the dismissals or play any role in identifying which U.S. attorneys should be removed. The administration previously said the White House counsel had recommended a GOP replacement for another U.S. attorney, in Arkansas, but did not say the White House had approved the other seven firings.

“If any agency wants to make a change regarding a presidential appointee, they run that change by the White House counsel’s office,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “That is standard operating procedure, and that is what happened here. The White House did not object to the Justice Department decision.”

The seven fired prosecutors were first identified by the Justice Department’s senior leadership shortly before the November elections, officials said. The final decision was supported by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, and cleared with the White House counsel’s office, including then-deputy counsel William Kelly, they said.

The firings have sparked outrage from Democrats and some Republicans in Congress as details emerged about the unusual decision to remove so many at once on Dec. 7, in the middle of the administration’s term. The issue escalated this week with the allegations from Iglesias, who has said he will name the two New Mexico lawmakers who called him if he is asked while under oath.

The House Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for Iglesias and three other fired prosecutors, who are set to testify in both the House and the Senate on Tuesday. Lawmakers plan to press for answers, including what triggered the creation of the list and who else was involved.

Most of the prosecutors have said they were given no reason for their dismissals and have responded angrily to the Justice Department’s contention that they were fired because of their performance. At least five of the prosecutors, including Iglesias, were presiding over public corruption investigations when they were fired, but Justice Department officials have said those probes played no role in the dismissals.

Domenici’s office confirmed Friday that it had raised concerns with the Justice Department about Iglesias’ office, particularly on immigration.

Domenici and his aides have declined to comment on whether the lawmaker called Iglesias. Any communication by a senator or House member with a federal prosecutor regarding an ongoing criminal investigation would be a violation of ethics rules.

The fired prosecutors in San Diego and Nevada are registered independents, while the rest are generally viewed as moderate Republicans, according to administration officials and many of the fired prosecutors.