- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

Democrats smell blood — and campaign cash — in the uproar over the Justice Department’s firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.

“This could be George Bush’s Watergate,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean wrote in an e-mail soliciting campaign funds yesterday.

Senate Democrats said their investigation into the firings is intended to preserve independence for federal prosecutors and keep them from being used as political foot soldiers for the executive branch.

“Every single U.S. attorney has to have an objectivity and independence, and a willingness to pursue facts, wherever those facts lead them,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat. “My greatest worry about this whole episode is that it is having a chilling effect on the objectivity of U.S. attorneys all across this nation.”

However, Republican senators, while unhappy with the Justice Department and the White House’s bungled response to inquiries, charged Democrats with using the issue for political and financial gain.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, was using information gained in congressional inquiries he directed to attack Republicans through the Senate Democrats’ fundraising arm, which Mr. Schumer chairs.

“I believe there is a conflict of interest between Senator Schumer’s position as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the leader of this inquiry,” said Mr. Specter, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican.

Mr. Schumer rejected Mr. Specter’s criticism during a low-key but tense exchange in a Senate Judiciary Committee session.

“I fail to see any conflict whatsoever,” said Mr. Schumer, who chairs the Judiciary administrative oversight and the courts subcommittee, which last week interviewed four of the fired prosecutors.

Mr. Schumer said his investigation has focused “exclusively” on the Justice Department and the White House, and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics will handle any issues regarding lawmakers.

Attacks on Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, have been posted on the DSCC’s Web site (www.dscc.org) since last week.

The DSCC site says that Mr. Domenici “could be the focus of an obstruction of justice investigation by an independent counsel that could result in criminal penalties,” and attributes this statement to ethics lawyer Stanley Brand.

Mr. Domenici is under scrutiny for a phone call he made in October to then-U.S. attorney for New Mexico, David C. Iglesias. The senator asked Mr. Iglesias whether he would finish a corruption case involving local Democrats before the November election.

When Mr. Iglesias said he would not, Mr. Domenici said, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and hung up, Mr. Iglesias testified to Mr. Schumer’s subcommittee last week. Mr. Iglesias said he felt “leaned on.”

Mr. Domenici said last week, “I did not pressure him. I asked him a timing question. He responded. I concluded the conversation.”

In addition to Mr. Iglesias’ firing, Democrats are investigating whether at least two others of the dismissed prosecutors were run out because they were pursuing corruption cases involving Republican congressmen.

Democrats yesterday took the first step toward issuing subpoenas for presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House officials. Subpoenas for 11 current and former Justice Department officials also were authorized.

But the White House, while feeling heat over calls for the president to replace Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, said complaints about the dismissals were mistaken.

“The president has the authority to remove people who serve at his pleasure, and these were people who had four-year terms, all of whom had expired,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

But Mr. Specter said he is willing to vote in favor of the subpoenas if Mr. Rove and others do not testify under oath willingly.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had scheduled the committee for a vote on White House subpoenas, but Mr. Specter requested that the vote be held over for a week.

“Let’s give them a chance to respond before we get tough,” Mr. Specter said.

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