Karl Rove. (Photo: Charles Dharapak / The Associated Press)
Political adviser Karl Rove and other officials inside George W. Bush's White House pushed for the firing of a key federal prosecutor because he wasn't cooperating with Republican plans for indicting Democrats and their allies before the 2006 election, according to internal documents and depositions.
The evidence was released Tuesday and turned over to a special prosecutor by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers. It contradicts claims by Rove and other senior Bush administration officials that the White House played only a minimal role in the firing of David Iglesias and eight other US attorneys who were deemed by a Justice Department official as not "loyal Bushies."
In a recent interview with The New York Times and The Washington Post, Rove downplayed his role in the firings, saying he only acted as a "conduit" for complaints that Republican Party officials and GOP lawmakers sent to him about the federal prosecutors. The documents tell a different story.
The documents reveal that Rove, his White House aides and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers actively participated in the decision to oust New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias because Republicans had wanted him to bring charges against Democrats regarding alleged voter fraud and other issues. Iglesias refused to do that.
According to Miers's closed-door testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, a "very agitated" Rove phoned her from New Mexico, apparently in September 2006, and told her that Iglesias was "a serious problem and he wanted something done about it."
At the time of the phone call, Rove had just met with New Mexico Republican Party officials angry at Iglesias, who was refusing to proceed with voter fraud cases because he felt the evidence was weak and because pre-election indictments would violate Justice Department guidelines.
Miers said she responded to Rove's call by getting on the phone to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and passing along the message that Rove "is getting lots of complaints." Miers added, "it was a problem." About one month later, Iglesias was added to the list of US attorneys to be removed.
But the documents show that White House dissatisfaction with Iglesias over his resistance to bringing politically motivated cases against Democrats had been building for more than a year. On June 28, 2005, Scott Jennings, one of Rove's aides, sent an e-mail to Tim Griffin, another Rove aide, asking what could be done to remove Iglesias.
"I would really like to move forward with getting rid of NM US ATTY," Jennings wrote, complaining that "Iglesias has done nothing" on prosecuting voter fraud cases and adding: "We're getting killed out there."
In a statement on Tuesday of this week, accompanying the release of more than 5,000 pages of documents - including transcripts of the recent interviews with Rove and Miers - Conyers said the revelations warrant further inspection by special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, who has spent nearly a year conducting a criminal probe into the firings.
"After all the delay and despite all the obfuscation, lies, and spin, this basic truth can no longer be denied: Karl Rove and his cohorts at the Bush White House were the driving force behind several of these firings, which were done for improper reasons," Conyers said.
A Justice Department watchdog report concluded last year that a majority of the prosecutor firings were politically motivated. The US attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, was pushed out, so Rove's aide, Tim Griffin, could be given the job. But - in the face of the growing scandal - Griffin bowed out.
For months, Rove and Miers had dodged Congressional subpoenas seeking their testimony in the matter, citing George W. Bush's broad claims of executive privilege. But the Obama administration brokered a deal that had Rove and Miers testify behind closed doors.
Besides the Bush White House pressure for ousting Iglesias, powerful New Mexico Republicans also weighed in.
In October 2006, a month before the midterm elections that cost Republicans control of Congress, an e-mail chain started by Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) faulted Iglesias for not using his office in a manner that would help Wilson in her reelection campaign.
Wilson's e-mail included a news report about an FBI probe of Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania) as an example of criminal investigations proceeding close to election day.
Steve Bell, chief of staff to New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, forwarded the e-mail to Jennings at Rove's White House shop, with a note saying it "seems like other U.S. attorneys can do their work even in election season. And the FBI has already admitted they have turned over their evidence [in a federal corruption probe] to the [U.S. Attorney] in [New Mexico] and are merely awaiting his action."
Jennings then passed along the e-mail to Rove, saying Iglesias was "shy about doing his job on [Patricia] Madrid," a Democratic Congressional candidate who would lose the 2006 election to Wilson by only 800 votes.
Last year, Wilson told Justice Department watchdogs investigating the US attorney purge that the context of her e-mail was more of a "heads up" to the recipients. She said that if she were asked by reporters about an FBI investigation into Madrid, she would confirm it. Madrid was New Mexico's former attorney general who was involved with a political action committee that was allegedly under scrutiny.
Domenici also intervened, personally lobbying Bush's top aides to fire Iglesias, according to the documents. Between September 2005 and April 2006, Domenici called Attorney General Alberto Gonzales three times to complain about Iglesias's handling of voter fraud and corruption probes and to ask that he be fired.
Gonzales testified to Congress that he did not recall Domenici ever making such a request. Gonzales resigned in August 2007 amid political fallout from the prosecutor-firing scandal.
On October 4, 2006, Domenici also called Deputy Attorney General McNulty, "expressing concern about Iglesias's lack of fitness for the job of U.S. Attorney."
At one point, according to Rove's testimony, Domenici wanted to speak with President Bush to press his case, but Rove talked him out of it. However, in October 2006, the senator personally asked Bush's chief of staff Josh Bolten to replace Iglesias, according to White House phone logs and e-mails.
In Congressional testimony, Iglesias said he also received telephone calls from Domenici and Wilson in October 2006 inquiring about the timing of an indictment against former state Sen. Manny Aragon, a Democrat, and other Democrats who were involved in a courthouse construction project.
Domenici's interventions prompted a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, which resulted last year in a letter of reprimand for creating an "appearance of impropriety." Special prosecutor Dannehy is probing possible obstruction of justice charges against Domenici and his former aide Steve Bell.
Dannehy secured the testimony last April of Scott O'Neal, the assistant FBI special agent in charge of the Albuquerque field office, who reportedly informed Domenici or his aide Bell about the status of the FBI's investigation of alleged Democratic wrongdoing, according to legal sources who requested anonymity because of secrecy surrounding the probe.
In an interview, former US Attorney Iglesias said the briefing to Domenici and/or Bell, if it did take place, would be significant because it would have required approval from himself or his former colleagues who never received a formal request from O'Neal or his FBI superiors.
The US attorney's manual states that "personnel of the Department of Justice shall not respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation or comment on its nature or progress, including such things as the issuance or serving of a subpoena, prior to the public filing of the document."
Regarding Tuesday's revelations, Iglesias said he had long suspected that Rove's "fingerprints were all over this."
In an interview with me two years ago, Iglesias said he believed "somewhere on an RNC computer - on some server somewhere - there's an e-mail from Karl Rove stating why we need to be axed." He added that he believed a "smoking gun" would eventually surface and lead directly to Rove and blow the scandal wide open.
"The e-mail timing [in October 2006] corroborates what I suspected," Iglesias said Tuesday. Domenici and other New Mexico Republican Party officials "wanted me to file indictments and [Wilson] would benefit. They wanted to use me and my office as a political tool."
Iglesias said Dannehy has access to "a lot of the facts" and "there still may be obstruction of justice charges" filed. He added, "I can't believe Gonzales did not know what was going on," suggesting that the former attorney general may be one of Dannehy's targets.
Domenici retired from the Senate and Wilson also left Congress in 2009 after unsuccessfully seeking the Republican nomination to fill Domenici's seat, which is now held by Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.
Deputy Attorney General McNulty testified before Congress in February 2007 that the prosecutor firings were "performance related," though that testimony also now appears to be in question.
Documents released by the Justice Department showed that Gonzales and McNulty participated in an hour-long meeting with Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who compiled the list of prosecutors to be fired, a group he famously designated as not "loyal Bushies."
The documents, along with Rove's and Miers's testimony, contradict numerous public statements made by White House spokespersons Tony Snow and Dana Perino in the aftermath of the December 2006 firings. Snow and Perino insisted that the White House did nothing wrong and didn't oust prosecutors for political reasons.
Yet, upon being informed in November 2006 via e-mail of the plan to fire the US attorneys, Perino responded: "Someone get me the oxygen can!" When told the firings included some US attorneys who were actively investigating GOP lawmakers alleged to be involved in corruption, Perino added: "Give me a double shot - I can't breathe."
The newly released documents also show that Kansas City US Attorney Todd Graves was removed in a deal between the White House and Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri that appears to have been personally approved by Rove.
According to the documents, Bond agreed to lift his hold on an Arkansas judge nominated to the Eighth Circuit federal appeals court in exchange for Graves's firing. A December 21, 2005, e-mail sent by White House lawyer Fred Klingler to Miers stated that "Karl is fine" with the proposal.