WASHINGTON A fired prosecutor told Congress on Tuesday that he warned ousted colleagues that the Bush administration might retaliate if they spoke out about their dismissals, which critics say appeared to have been politically motivated.
And one of the former federal attorneys repeated his claim under oath that he was fired just weeks after rejecting pressure from two U.S. lawmakers to bring indictments in a probe involving New Mexico state Democrats, which could have helped Republicans in last year's elections.
The recent firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys, who prosecute federal cases, has ignited a political storm in the new Democratic-led Congress, which has promised to increase oversight of how the Bush administration operates.
"Federal prosecutors are supposed to be heroic soldiers in the fight against crime and corruption, not hapless casualties of political warfare," Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Later at a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee hearing, chairwoman Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, said she was concerned several may have been fired for being too tough on Republicans or not tough enough on Democrats.
But William Moschella, who works at the Justice Department as principal associate deputy U.S. attorney general, rejected that. "These charges are dangerous, baseless and irresponsible," he said.
The Justice Department has denied any wrongdoing.
Although most of ousted prosecutors had received positive job reviews, the department has said they were largely dismissed because of employment-related matters or policy differences.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the full Judiciary Committee, fended off Democratic criticism, saying, "U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and all U.S. attorneys know that."
"(Former Democratic) President Clinton asked all 93 U.S. attorneys to resign when he took office and dismissed many others during his time in office," Smith said.
The Justice Department has acknowledged that Bud Cummins was fired as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas so the job could be given to a former White House aide.
Cummins told the Senate panel he was called last month by a top Justice Department official, Mike Elston, who suggested the department might put out more information about their dismissals if the controversy swelled.
In an e-mail to ousted colleagues released at the hearing, Cummins wrote: "The essence of his (Elston's) message was that they feel like they are taking unnecessary flak to avoid trashing each of us ... but if they feel like any of us intend to continue to offer quotes to the press, or organize behind-the-scenes congressional pressure, then they would feel forced to somehow pull their gloves off."
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said the conversation was "twisted into a perceived threat by former disgruntled employees grandstanding before Congress."
David Iglesias said he was ousted late last year as federal attorney in New Mexico after he resisted pressure from two U.S. lawmakers to bring indictments in an investigation involving state Democrats.
"I felt leaned on," said Iglesias, who had made such claims earlier this month to the news media.
The two New Mexico Republican lawmakers, Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, denied in separate statements this week putting pressure on Iglesias. They said they had merely inquired about the probe.
The Senate Ethics Committee has indicated that it is looking at the matter, and the House ethics panel may do so as well.