Justice stymieing probe of 6 firings, Democrats say

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Congressional Democrats say half a dozen former federal prosecutors were fired by the Bush administration for political reasons, and they’re accusing the Justice Department of withholding information related to the dismissals.

“Eleven months after the firings, we still haven’t gotten straight answers from the Department of Justice, which changed its own story this weekend and admitted the firings weren’t based on job performance,” said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law.

Both the House and Senate Judiciary committees will hold hearings today with the six former prosecutors.

Supporters of the administration’s policy say the firings were not done improperly. U.S. attorneys have four-year terms, but can be removed or replaced at any time, and for nearly any reason, according to federal law.

“We ought to not lose sight of the fact that president has the power to replace them,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “He doesn’t have to have a reason. If it is a bad reason, that is different.”

The Pennsylvania Republican added he would listen to the Democrats’ accusations of improper firings.

Democrats have specifically cited the case of former prosecutor Carol Lam of San Diego, who prosecuted former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican. Cunningham resigned from office last year after pleading guilty to bribery charges in connection to a case involving military contractors. Cunningham received an eight-year sentence.

Mrs. Lam, who was appointed by Mr. Bush in 2002, was fired after the Justice Department issued a request for her dismissal in January. According to the Justice Department, Mrs. Lam was fired for not aggressively pursuing the prosecution of border crimes.

The other five former U.S. attorneys scheduled to testify today include Daniel Bogden of Las Vegas, Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix, Bud Cummins of Little Rock, Ark., David C. Iglesias of Albuquerque, N.M., and John McKay of Seattle.

Meanwhile, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, yesterday said he made a mistake by contacting Mr. Iglesias during an ongoing probe of state Democrats on charges of corruption last year. While apologizing for making the call, Mr. Domenici told reporters he “never pressured him nor threatened him in any way.”

The Justice Department replaced Mr. Iglesias last December and said Mr. Domenici had put in four calls making such a request. Both say the calls happened between September of 2005 and October 2006, while the call to Mr. Iglesias took place in October.

Mr. Iglesias said he thinks the October calls to him from Mr. Domenici and Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson were made to pressure him on the pace of his corruption probe and are the real cause of his dismissal.

Last night, Fox News reported that Michael A. Battle, director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, had resigned his post. Mr. Battle was behind eight of the recent top-level firings. The Justice Department said the resignation was not connected to the firings and that Mr. Battle had announced his departure in an internal e-mail last month.

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