Democrats Spy Ethics Opening

Party Revives Broad Charges

Posted March 7, 2007 at 6:46pm

Senate Democrats are looking to tie the recent guilty verdict in the Scooter Libby CIA leak trial with the Bush administration’s controversial decision to sack a number of U.S. attorneys late last year as part of a broader national attack on what they call a chronic abuse of the justice system for political gain, aides said this week.

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared subpoenas for administration officials Wednesday, while a Republican Senator at the center of the U.S. attorneys affair retained legal counsel.

At the same time, the House Democratic leaders are prepping for a weeklong accountability and oversight push next week that will focus on their party’s efforts to rein in corruption and to make the case that after six years of getting a free pass from a GOP-controlled Congress, the White House is now being held accountable for its actions.

Although details of the House plan were still being worked out, aides familiar with the leadership’s thinking said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other House leaders will look to focus public attention on their oversight and investigative efforts since taking power in January on a variety of issues ranging from the recent Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal and the Iraq War to the U.S. attorneys scandal.

“The most important thing is oversight,” a senior Democratic aide said, arguing that “six months ago, before Democrats controlled Congress, the U.S. attorneys issue would not have ended up the subject of hearings.”

For weeks, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other top leaders in the Senate have been conducting a slow “rollout” of the issue, repeatedly raising questions about the firings at press conferences and other events. Significantly, Reid tapped Judiciary Committee member and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to take the lead on the issue, and leadership aides said Schumer has been preparing for this week’s hearings.

Democrats’ campaign organs also have jumped on the issue. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the DSCC have used revelations that GOP Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico may be involved in the U.S. attorneys affair as campaign fodder, releasing scathing press releases questioning their involvement over the past several days.

According to aides, Reid and other leaders over the coming weeks will use these and other issues to build an argument that the Bush administration, with the acquiescence of Congressional Republicans, systematically has abused its power for political gain. The message effort is likely to be similar to Democrats’ successful “culture of corruption” push last year, although one aide said Democrats were unlikely to use that moniker again. The aide explained that Reid is conscious that Democrats cannot simply critique the administration now that they have control of the Senate and will look for ways to curb these alleged abuses by the White House over the coming months.

Similarly, House aides said Pelosi is aware that Democrats cannot simply remain in attack mode and that her party will have to shift tactics to include concrete legislative and oversight efforts aimed at curbing abuses.

However, while the U.S. attorneys’ sacking has been a major issue in Washington and the states that have been directly affected, it has yet to resonate with the broader public. Senate Democratic aides said that as a result, over the next week Reid will look to tie the controversy to the Libby leak scandal, arguing that the White House has demonstrated a pattern of playing fast and loose with the nation’s laws and the legal system to silence administration critics. Democrats will portray both issues as being “national security issues and abuse of the justice system” for political gain.

Republicans on Tuesday downplayed the significance of the controversy and sought to paint it as a partisan ploy to discredit the White House. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) noted that in only one case has the administration appointed a replacement for a fired U.S. attorney, which he argued significantly would undercut Democratic claims of patronage. Allegations of abuse are “palpably untrue,” Kyl said Tuesday.

But privately, GOP aides acknowledged they will have a difficult time finding good political footing on corruption issues involving the White House. “There’s not much we can do but keep our heads down,” one senior aide said, lamenting the fact that just as Congressional Republicans were gaining political ground on Iraq, they were hit with a week of corruption messaging from Democrats thanks to the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Democrats continue to aggressively push forward in their probe of the firings by the Justice Department of at least seven U.S. attorneys. While Justice maintains the attorneys were ousted for performance-related reasons, Democrats allege they were dumped to make room for political friends — or even perhaps under pressure from some lawmakers.

“This is not going away,” said one House Democratic aide.

Schumer, who has been leading the probe, announced that the Judiciary Committee this morning will issue subpoenas to several top Justice Department officials, many of whom work directly for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, in case they refused to testify before the committee voluntarily.

“Now that it’s clear that there was a concerted effort to purge an impressive crop of U.S. attorneys, the next step is to identify and question those responsible for hatching this scheme to use U.S. attorneys as pawns in a political chess game,” Schumer said.

They are: Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ chief of staff; Monica Goodling, Gonzales’ counsel and the department’s White House liaison; Bill Mercer, the acting associate attorney general and the No. 3 official in the department; Mike Battle, the outgoing director of Justice’s executive office of U.S. attorneys; and Mike Elston, the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general.

Several of the U.S. attorneys who testified before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday said Battle informed them of Justice’s decision to terminate their jobs. Former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias said that Battle told him he did not know why Iglesias was fired, but that the decision came “from on high,” which Iglesias interpreted as either from Gonzales or the White House counsel’s office.

Ex-Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins submitted an e-mail to the committee describing a Feb. 20 phone call from Elston that he interpreted as threatening him not to testify before Congress. Elston wrote a March 6 letter to Schumer saying he was “shocked and baffled” by such allegations. As the scandal escalated Wednesday, Domenici retained top Washington attorney K. Lee Blalack of the firm O’Melveny and Myers, a Domenici aide confirmed.

Blalack defended former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who currently is serving more than eight years in a Tucson, Ariz., prison camp for accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

Blalack also worked for ex-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in the investigation surrounding his stock sales from a Senate blind trust. Domenici hired Blalack just days after Iglesias accused the Senator of making a threatening October 2006 phone call to inquire about a criminal corruption probe into local Democrats.

According to Iglesias’ account, Domenici asked whether Iglesias was prepared to hand down indictments before the November elections and then abruptly hung up the phone.

“In his own testimony, Mr. Iglesias confirmed that nothing I actually said was threatening or directive. I did not pressure him. I asked him a timing question. He responded. I concluded the conversation,” Domenici said in a statement.

Iglesias also pointed the finger at Wilson, who he said called him about two weeks before Domenici to inquire whether he was holding back any “sealed indictments.” Wilson denies pressuring Iglesias in any way.

A spokesman for Wilson said she had not hired a lawyer as of Wednesday afternoon.