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Fuel to the Firings

Eight U.S. attorneys lost their jobs. Now investigators are assessing if the dismissals were politically motivated.

Disgruntled: Former U.S. Attorneys Carol Lam (left), David Iglesias, John McKay and H.E. (Bud) Cummins testify before the Senate
Dennis Cook / AP
Disgruntled: Former U.S. Attorneys Carol Lam (left), David Iglesias, John McKay and H.E. (Bud) Cummins testify before the Senate

By Michael Isikoff

March 19, 2007 issue - Bud Cummins never had any intention of making a fuss. A folksy Arkansas lawyer, Cummins had been abruptly fired last year as U.S. attorney in Little Rock to create a slot for a former top aide to Karl Rove. But Cummins is a loyal Republican; he knows how the game is played in Washington, so he kept quiet. Then last month, as the press picked up on the story of Cummins and seven other fired U.S. attorneys, he was quoted in a newspaper story defending his colleagues. Cummins got a phone call from the Justice Department that he found vaguely menacing.

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It came from Michael Elston, a top Justice official. Cummins says Elston expressed concern that he and the dismissed attorneys were talking to reporters about what had happened to them. Elston, Cummins says, suggested this might not be a good idea; Justice officials might feel compelled to "somehow pull their gloves off" and retaliate against the prosecutors by publicly trashing them. "I was tempted to challenge him," Cummins e-mailed colleagues later that day, "and say something movie-like such as 'are you threatening ME???' " (Elston acknowledges he told Cummins, "it's really a shame that all this has to come out in the newspaper," but says "I didn't intend to threaten him.")

Was there an attempted cover-up? The disclosure of Cummins's e-mail at a Senate hearing last week only stoked the controversy surrounding a Justice Department already under fire for politicizing the legal process. Even Republican lawmakers stepped forward to criticize the attorney general's handling of the matter. "It was clumsy and unseemly," Sen. Lindsey Graham tells NEWSWEEK. By the end of the week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had made a rare acknowledgment of error and agreed to let a congressional probe into the firings move forward.

A key question for investigators now: did Justice officials, with involvement from the White House, fire attorneys in retaliation for actions that didn't favor the GOP? David Iglesias, who was dumped as U.S. attorney in New Mexico, says Sen. Peter Domenici called him and pressed him to bring indictments in a corruption case involving local Democrats before last November's election. When he didn't give the answer Domenici wanted, "the line went dead." A senior Justice official, who didn't want to be named discussing sensitive legal issues, says Domenici had earlier complained to the deputy attorney general about Iglesias's record on "public corruption." (Domenici apologized for his call to Iglesias, but says he "never pressured" him.)

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