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2008-06-04

Former US Attorney David Iglesias on "In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration"

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David Iglesias, former New Mexico prosecutor and author of the new book In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration.

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We speak to fired US attorney David Iglesias about the US attorneys scandal, voter suppression, vote caging and the politicization of the Justice Department. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a scandal that’s rocked the Bush administration. Former White House deputy, Karl Rove, is vowing to fight a congressional subpoena to testify on the politicization of the Justice Department. Last month, the House Judiciary Committee gave Rove a July 10th deadline to answer questions on the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and the firing of nine US attorneys. House Judiciary Chair John Conyers has rejected an offer from Rove’s attorneys that would have had Rove appear on condition his testimony not be under oath and not be transcribed. Rove now says he’ll let the courts decide.

The firing of the nine US attorneys will likely be remembered as one of the biggest scandals in the Bush administration Justice Department. A number of political motives have been linked to the firings, including the attorneys’ refusal to pursue voter fraud cases, a top issue for Republicans.

The firings helped bring down former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August of last year following months of scrutiny.

    ALBERTO GONZALES: Yesterday, I met with President Bush and informed him of my decision to conclude my government service as Attorney General of the United States, effective as of September 17, 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush publicly defended Gonzales at the time, saying he had been targeted for political reasons.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: After months of unfair treatment that has created harmful — a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision. It’s sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration’s denial of a political motive in the firings has unraveled with a series of pieces of evidence, including testimony from former aides and leaked White House emails.

Perhaps the most well known of the ousted US attorneys is former New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias. He has just come out with a new book called In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration. He joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID IGLESIAS: Thank you. Good to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, your thoughts on this historic day? We were just talking about the results last night and Barack Obama becoming the presumptive nominee. I mean, of course, you are a Republican, if a disillusioned one.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Right, right. Well, Obama, to me, represents all the promise of America that a biracial man from a broken family can rise and have a strong shot of becoming our next president. Incredibly inspirational. His rhetoric is soaring. It reminds me of speeches I’ve heard from Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Just beautiful stuff. It really makes me proud to be an American, also a biracial person — grew up tri-cultural in Latin America and in the US. I have a lot warm thoughts to Barack Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is interesting. You are a Republican. The big question is, where will independent Republicans go, or independents and Republicans? Are you endorsing Barack Obama?

DAVID IGLESIAS: I’m not endorsing anybody, Amy. I’m just saying that at a very emotional, visceral level, I have a lot of respect for what Obama represents. I mean, our country has elected white males from northern European countries going back now 230-or-so years. This finally represents that the top position in American government is really open to everyone, and I think that’s sending a powerful message not only to Americans, but throughout the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you begin where you began your book In Justice? You start it with two words: “in justice.”

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yeah, well, that’s very much a play on words, because I was obviously within the Justice Department working as a US attorney. There are ninety-three of us. We enforce federal law. My Southwest border colleagues in Arizona and Texas and California and my office, we carried the lion’s share of the Justice Department’s work, in term of immigration prosecutions and narcotics prosecutions. So I was working within the Justice Department. I was part of former Attorney General Ashcroft’s advisory council, so I came to Washington every month or two for about a one-to-two-year period.

Also, obviously a play on words, because what happened not only to me and my colleagues was an injust result, because the history of the department, the history of United States attorneys, was that politics were not to be factored in our prosecutions. In fact, Ashcroft told me that, he told my fellow US attorneys, as we were being interviewed seven years ago, almost to the month, that politics should never be part of our decision-making process as prosecutors.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you come to be the US attorney of New Mexico?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, I did lots of things, including running legal offices in New Mexico at the state and local government. I had served in the US Navy JAG Corps, spent four years of active duty. I’ve been a Reservist now for over twenty years. But I think my biggest political credential was running for state attorney general as a Republican in 1998. It is a political appointment, but I really want to make this crystal clear. Not only the expectation, but the requirement, similar to federal judges, is that once a United States attorney is confirmed and in office, they cannot engage in partisan political activities or be subject to it.

AMY GOODMAN: A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise’s character was based on you, is that right, David Iglesias?

DAVID IGLESIAS: That’s — Amy, that’s partially true. I had two other colleagues that tried two separate cases in Guantanamo, but yeah, I went down to Gitmo back in 1986, and that’s where the movie has its genesis.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about how September 11th shaped who you are, what happened, where you ended up?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Right. 9/11 was a real sea change for law enforcement, because previous to 9/11, law enforcement and intelligence services didn’t really speak to each other. Obviously, with the advent of the PATRIOT Act, the wall of separation came down. And when all of us came into office — the class of 2001 is what I call it. John McKay in Seattle was also part of that group. I believe Charlton in Arizona was also. We were tasked and even given orders at our first US attorney meeting here in Washington, D.C. in November, that our number one job was to fight terrorism. Everything else paled in comparison. I distinctly remember a meeting in front of the Pentagon where the airplane hit with Ashcroft and virtually all the new US attorneys, and them giving us — it was almost like a secondary commission. This is why we’re here. This is your job, is to prevent this from ever happening again. It was a very inspirational moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, talk about your Pearl Harbor. Talk about December 7, 2006.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes. So fast-forward to December of 2006. Ironically, I’m doing Navy Reserve duty in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m flying back home to Albuquerque. I get a message at Baltimore/Washington Airport on my Blackberry to call main justice, and so I did, thinking that was kind of an odd thing since I had not called them.

And I talked to my friend Mike Battle — I need to state that he still is a good friend — and Mike just said, “Look, the administration wants to go a different way. We want you to submit your resignation, effective the end of next month.” And I said, “Wait a minute. What’s going on here? I was given no warning. Had you warned me, I could have probably fixed the problem.” And Mike’s answer was very telling. His answer was, “Dave, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. All I know is this came from on high,” which told me this came from the White House or possibly the AG’s office.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now back up and explain what led to this. When did you start to get an inkling? When did you start to get a sense things were very wrong with what you were being asked to do?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, about a week — I mean, I was in a state of shock for a long time. And I thought, I wonder if I’m alone. Well, I called Johnny Sutton, currently serving as US attorney in Austin. Johnny was a friend of mine. And I tried to get him to provide some assistance to get the administration to reconsider, because I knew I had been doing a good job, based on the Justice Department’s own evaluation team. And Johnny just said, “Look, this is political. If I were you, I’d just let it go and go away quietly.” So I thought I was the only one, at first.

And then McKay in Seattle sends this very cryptic email out one week later. I emailed him right back, saying, “Did you get the same phone call I did?” He said, “Yes. There are, I believe, up to ten more.” So I asked John who they were. I just started calling them. And within two weeks of our December 7th phone call, I was able to figure out — we were able to figure out there were at least seven or eight of us that had gotten the same phone call. And I knew the history of the office.

AMY GOODMAN: On the same day?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: A number of you on the same day?

DAVID IGLESIAS: All seven of us got the same phone call from Mike Battle on Pearl Harbor Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Now explain the whole issue of these voter fraud cases and the calls that you started receiving.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Right. In the election cycle of 2004, there had been a tremendous amount of local publicity in New Mexico about alleged voter fraud. And the sheriff of Bernalillo County, Darren White, who’s currently running for Congress, had made a lot of splash about there’s voter fraud out there, that a US attorney needs to do something about it. So I convened only one of two election fraud task forces convened in the country, and it was state, local and federal law enforcement. I worked for the Justice Department.

We took over 100 complaints. I set up a toll-free number. I had a press conference. And then we looked at the evidence, because a prosecutor can’t just accuse people. You have to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you can go in the court and make stick. So, after looking at the complaints, I had one possible case. And then, after looking actually with — in consulting with the FBI and the Justice Department’s election fraud unit, we all concluded this case was not provable. So I didn’t file any cases.

Well, I later heard, through the ’05 and early ’06, that the New Mexico Republicans were just furious that I hadn’t filed any cases. Of course, they didn’t have the evidence that I looked at. They didn’t talk to the agent. They didn’t look at the reports. So they thought I was being incompetent or I was waiting until after the election cycle, which is when Heather Wilson called me. Heather Wilson is the congresswoman from Albuquerque. She called me in October, wanting to know about sealed indictments. And I remember thinking, I can’t talk about sealed indictments, so I didn’t tell her anything about that. About two weeks later, Senator Pete Domenici, the guy who helped me get my job as US attorney, called me and was a lot more pointed. He ended up hanging up on me, after he was trying to press me to tell him when these indictments related to a corruption matter was going to be prosecuted.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain again Congressman Heather Wilson calling you.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yeah. She had heard — Heather Wilson had heard that — and I heard this on a debate on television in New Mexico just about two weeks ago. She stated she had heard from constituents that I was intentionally withholding the indictment of a prominent Democrat until after the election. This is information that she could have used in an attack piece against her opponent, who had been the state attorney general, and she had previously attacked her opponent for not filing any corruption cases. So this information was highly sensitive. It was highly confidential. I could not disclose it. And Heather wanted me to tell her about sealed indictments, which is absolutely prohibited. I mean, I could have lost my job for cause over this. So I’m convinced she picked up the phone, called Domenici, who called me a couple weeks later in my home on a weekend and tried to get me to — he tried to pressure me to rush these indictments, which I didn’t do, because the case wasn’t ready.

AMY GOODMAN: I want you to tell that specific story that you also told before Congress, when Senator Domenici made that call to you, when you were sitting in your bedroom. David Iglesias is the former US attorney for New Mexico. He was fired, along with a number of other US attorneys around the country, a scandal that has now rocked the Bush administration. We’ll come back to that story in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the former US attorney from New Mexico, David Iglesias. We are talking about his new book In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration. Go back to that day when Senator Domenici called you.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes. I had never received any call from any member of Congress at home while I was a sitting US attorney, so it completely set me back on my heels. Fortunately, my wife was standing just about five feet away, so she was able to hear my side of the conversation. She was later interviewed by some investigations that are currently ongoing. That’s one thing I want to make clear, Amy. There are still five pending investigations into this matter. It’s not over. It’s not resolved.

But I was at home, and I get a call out of the blue from Steve Bell, who is Domenici’s chief of staff. He indicated to me there were complaints about me, and then he passed the phone over to Senator Pete Domenici, who just got right down to brass tacks. No “How are you doing? How’s the family?” Nothing like that. It was — I mean, what he said was “I’ve been hearing about these corruption cases or corruption matters, and I want to know, are these going to get filed before November?” And I said I didn’t think so, which is about as much as I could say without getting into trouble myself. And then he said, “I’m very sorry to hear that,” and then he hung up on me. The line went dead.

And then I looked at my wife, and it was one of those moments where you’ll never forget, knowing something really bad just happened. But we weren’t sure what the repercussions were.

So, those are the two phone calls, and which I believe led to removal my removal, that I didn’t rush indictments against a prominent Democrat, and I didn’t file any bogus voter fraud cases. You have to understand, the Justice Department had sent out emails to every US attorney, both in ’02 and ’04, asking us to work with election officials and enforce election law. I thought that was the MO for the Justice Department long-term, later found out that was a Bush administration thing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the testimony of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. On April 20th, 2007, Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the continued probe into the attorney firings, including yours. In more than five hours of testimony, Gonzales claimed more than fifty times that he could not recall certain events, including a conversation with President Bush. In his opening testimony, Gonzales apologized for the handling of the firings but said they were justified.

    ALBERTO GONZALES: Finally, let me be clear about this: while the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred. US attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment or simply to have another qualified individual serve. I think we agree on that. I think we also agree on what would be improper. It would be improper to remove a US attorney to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I did not do that. I would never do that. Nor, do I believe that anyone else in the department advocated the removal of a US attorney for such a purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was one of Gonzales’s harshest congressional critics. In his opening remarks that day, Leahy suggested Gonzales had engaged in misconduct.

    SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: One thing abundantly clear is if the phrase “performance-related” is to retain any meaning, that rationale should be withdrawn as the justification for the firing of David Iglesias, John McKay, Daniel Bogden, Paul Charlton, Carol Lam, and perhaps others. Indeed, the apparent reason for these terminations has a lot more to do with politics than performance. In his written testimony for this hearing, in his newspaper columns, the Attorney General makes the conclusory statement that nothing improper occurred. The truth is that these firings haven’t been explained, and there is mounting evidence of improper considerations and actions resulting in the dismissals.

AMY GOODMAN: David Iglesias, your response to what Gonzales had to say?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, and that’s precisely why Gonzales has retained criminal counsel, is he realizes he’s at jeopardy for being possibly investigated on obstruction of justice, perjury charges. And John McKay in a law review piece in the Seattle Law Review Journal just argued that precise point, that what Gonzales did could amount to obstruction of justice. I agree with what Leahy said. The department still has not explained our firings. Nobody knows who put our names on the list.

And to put this into context, Amy, no president, no administration has ever fired nine of their own US attorneys for any reason. I mean, this is unprecedented. A lot of people point to what President Clinton did, but he was firing President H.W. Bush’s US attorneys, which is completely appropriate. Reagan fired his predecessors. Nothing wrong with that. But no sitting US president has ever fired that many US attorneys at the same time and offered up flimsy reasons like were proffered for us.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to this issue of voter turnout. We all keep talking about they wanted you to more aggressively investigate, quote, "voter fraud." But explain exactly what’s being talked about and your resistance to restricting minority turnout.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Right. Well, I was under a lot of pressure by Republican state operatives in New Mexico to file matters. I had lunch with some friends who would say, “Hey, you know, the party really wants you to file something. Could you please file something?” And I told one of my friends who had been a federal prosecutor, I said, “Look, you know how it works. We need evidence. We have to be able to prove it. I can’t just accuse somebody and then let it go.” The former general counsel for the state party there in New Mexico was calling me and my assistant, leaving emails and voice messages, just obsessed with this topic. The Republicans were convinced that there was massive fraud going on in New Mexico and other states, although my focus was obviously only New Mexico. They believed there were lots of illegal immigrants voting, that there were lots of felons voting. And initially, I thought, well, maybe there’s something to that. But again, prosecutors can’t file charges on rumor and innuendo. We have to be able to have conclusive evidence we can prove to a jury. And I didn’t have that.

And obviously, a place like New Mexico is minority majority. We’ve been a minority majority state now for quite some time. And I believe, looking back now, that there was an attempt to suppress the voting, not only of people who did not have the right to vote, such as felons and illegals, but possibly those that had the right to vote, maybe older people that don’t have IDs, which is why there was litigation going on about a voter ID law, which failed at the state level.

AMY GOODMAN: What is “vote caging”?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Oh, gosh. That’s a terrible practice. If it’s not illegal, it should be. I hope Congress fixes that, that problem. It’s when you send voter information to a group of people that you have reason to believe are no longer there, such as military personnel who are overseas, such as students at historically black colleges. And then, when it comes back as undeliverable, the party uses that information to remove that person from the voter rolls, claiming that they’re no longer there or they didn’t the right to vote. It’s a reprehensible practice. I had never heard of the phrase until after I left office.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think we have to be concerned about in the 2008 election?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, I mean, I hope the media keeps shining the spotlight on groups like the American Center for Voting Rights, the ACVR, who has been engaging in this type of voter suppression actions, especially targeting elderly people and minorities. And I mean, if you’re an American citizen who is not a felon, you have the right to vote. So I would just hope that in swing states like Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico and a handful of other states, that the Democrat Party, that the media, really keeps a lot of pressure on this. My own belief, Amy, is that the Republican Party will not be engaging in this type of guerrilla activity like they have in previous years, because of the pushback that they saw as a result of our firings.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you represented to Karl Rove and then what Karl Rove did?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Oh, yes. I only met Karl Rove one time. He was at a luncheon in Albuquerque. He came over and introduced himself. But, you know, he was looking to broaden the base of the party, and as an evangelical Christian, as a military veteran, and as a Hispanic, I represented the future of the party, and that was all in one package. I had run for office. I’m typically conservative on lots of social issues. And I think Rove saw that I represented the future of the party. But I think he also thought I was the kind of person who would file bogus voter fraud prosecutions, I would — was the kind of US attorney that would rush an indictment if it would help a fellow conservative. And, you know, I wasn’t that — I didn’t do that. And I don’t want to paint myself as the only one, because John McKay in Seattle also refused to file bogus election fraud cases in the Washington state, and Todd Graves in Missouri refused to file bogus voter fraud prosecutions after looking at the evidence. I mean, they thought they had political operatives, and what they had were principled law enforcement officials.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a loyal member of the Republican Party and the Bush administration. What ultimately pushed you to break ranks? Was it your firing?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, it was a combination of things. They slandered our reputation when the deputy attorney general testified that we had performance-related problems. We knew he knew better. We knew he had seen our evaluations. And also I knew that John McKay and Carol Lam and Charlton and Bogden and Chiara represented some of the best US attorneys out there. These were very forward-thinking, smart, principled people. So I think I wrote in the New York Times last year something to the effect that I knew I could be fired for doing the wrong thing, I didn’t know I could be fired for doing the right thing. And the right thing was upholding the rule of law. I mean, this is not about us losing our jobs. This is a matter of us enforcing the rule of law and separation of powers and doing what prosecutors have traditionally done in prior administrations, which was be independent and autonomous of elected officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the prosecution, the jailing of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman is related to what happened to you, David Iglesias?

DAVID IGLESIAS: I think there is a very strong circumstantial case there. I’ve not followed that issue as carefully as our own firings. But based on what I’ve read — and also, it’s really important to point out, federal courts of appeal almost never release somebody who has already been convicted and is serving time. I called my office after the Siegelman story broke. I asked one of my lawyers that does nothing but appeals. I said, “Has this happened in this district, that the circuit has released somebody we’ve convicted?” He goes, “It’s never happened.” So the listener really needs to understand how rare it was for the Fifth Circuit there to release Governor Siegelman. I think it has lots of indicia of political interference, which would explain why Rove doesn’t want to talk about it, because he has criminal liability, and he knows that.

AMY GOODMAN: And Karl Rove vowing to fight a congressional subpoena to testify on the politicization of the Justice Department, now demanding that he not have to testify under oath or that there be any transcript of his testimony?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Which is a completely unacceptable offer. I mean, any prosecutor worth his or her salt is going to say that that testimony is worthless. If it’s not under oath, not subject to the penalties of perjury, if it’s not transcribed and if it’s not public, it’s a worthless statement. I mean, I know Congress will never accept that. I believe Rove will not show up. This will — he’ll be added to the current litigation between the House of Representatives and Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, who similarly thumb their nose at the rule of law, didn’t even show up to claim privilege.

I mean, anybody out there who’s been in the courts realizes when you get a subpoena, you can’t just ignore it. You have to show up. You have to state why you’re privileged, what information you can’t talk about for whatever reason, documents — you have to create a privilege log and specify what they are and what privilege you’re claiming. One thing you can’t do is ignore a subpoena, which is exactly what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on John McCain? Did he enter into any of this to help you at any point?

DAVID IGLESIAS: No, no. I’ve got a lot of respect for John McCain, too. I mean, he’s served his country honorably, obviously was a POW. I mean, I’ve got a lot of respect for John McCain, too. But no, his — you know, they’re pursuing their campaign, and they’re not interested in this issue. I think a lot of people think this is yesterday’s news, not realizing that probably the largest inspector general’s report within the Justice Department’s history is ready to drop.

AMY GOODMAN: David Iglesias, I want to thank you very much for being with us, served as United States attorney for the district of New Mexico from 2001 to 2007. His book is In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration.

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