WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was subpoenaed on Wednesday to produce any e-mails he may have from White House political adviser Karl Rove related to a widening congressional probe into the firing of federal prosecutors.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, issued the subpoena, noting he asked Gonzales last month if he had any such documents but had yet to receive a response. Gonzales ousted the prosecutors last year as part of a plan that originated at the White House.
The administration contends the firing of eight of the 93 U.S. attorneys last year was justified, though mishandled. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of a president.
Congressional investigators are attempting to determine if the firings were politically motivated. One of the U.S. attorneys, Bud Cummings, was ousted in Arkansas to make room for Tim Griffin, a former top aide to Rove.
In reaction to the subpoena from Capitol Hill, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: “I know they like to get headlines more than they like to get the facts, but if there’s still any interest in the facts up there, the easiest way is to simply accept our offer to have Karl and others in for interviews.”
In a letter to Gonzales, Leahy wrote, “It is troubling that significant documents highly relevant to the committee’s inquiry have not been produced” despite repeated requests.
President George W. Bush rejected bipartisan calls to fire Gonzales following the attorney general’s contentious appearance before Leahy’s committee last month.
Afterward, lawmakers promised to push on with their investigations.
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday it was looking into whether its former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, considered political affiliation — in violation of the law — in deciding who to hire as career prosecutors in U.S. attorney offices nationwide.
Goodling, who was a top aide to Gonzales, resigned last month and invoked her right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify before Congress. A House of Representatives committee is seeking to give her limited immunity to compel her testimony.
The House Judiciary subcommittee, which is to hear from former Deputy Attorney General James Comey on Thursday, released written responses it received from six of the fired prosecutors who testified before it in March.
Paul Charlton, dismissed in Arizona, advised the panel that shortly before a Senate appearance by Gonzales this year, he received a call from Mike Elston, a Justice Department official.
“In that conservation I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s,” Charlton wrote.
Carol Lam, sacked in San Diego after obtaining a bribery conviction against then-Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California, said she was denied a plea for more time on the job.
Lam, among seven prosecutors notified on December 7 that they were being ousted, wrote the House panel that Elston called her in January and informed “me that my request for more time based on case-related considerations was ‘not being received positively.’”
“He insisted that I had to depart in a matter of weeks, not months, and that the instructions were ‘coming from the very highest levels of government,’” Lam wrote the House panel.
The Justice Department has offered shifting and even conflicting explanations of why the prosecutors were fired.
It initially said they were ousted largely because of performance-related problems. But it later said many dismissals involved policy differences. Recently released internal documents showed loyalty to Bush was also a factor.
David Iglesias, ousted in New Mexico after he brushed off what he described as political pressure in an investigation, wrote the House panel that he asked Mike Battle, then head of the Office of U.S. Attorneys, if he could explain why he was being sacked.
“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” Iglesias quoted Battle as telling him.
Additional reporting by Jim Vicini