Charge Hits Ex-Ethics Aide
Accusations against a former top aide to Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) throw a new wrinkle into any investigation flowing from the dramatic testimony of a former U.S. attorney that implicates two sitting lawmakers — and could force Hastings, the top Republican on the ethics committee, to recuse himself from such a probe.
John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney for Washington state, on Tuesday accused former ethics panel aide Ed Cassidy of calling him to ask about the status of a potential federal probe into the long-contested 2004 Washington gubernatorial race.
At the time of the inquiry, Cassidy was Hastings’ chief of staff in his personal office, but he went on to become Hastings’ top aide on the ethics panel in February 2005.
The accusations were leveled at a sensational Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday morning, during which four ousted U.S. attorneys testified that they did not know why they were summarily fired by the Justice Department. At the hearing, fired New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias accused Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) of pressuring him into wrapping up a corruption probe into local Democrats.
The House and Senate ethics committees could open probes into the lawmakers’ behavior.
“I believe the House ought to take it under consideration,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Am I going to file a complaint? The answer is no. It has been my consistent position that the ethics committee has a responsibility … when issues are raised in the public sphere … I would hope they would do that.”
A Hastings spokeswoman would not comment Tuesday on whether the Republican would recuse himself from any probe into the U.S. attorneys’ allegations.
“Ed Cassidy’s call and the conversation that took place were entirely appropriate,” Hastings said in a written response to questions from Roll Call. “It was simply an inquiry and nothing more — and it was the only call to any federal official from this office on this subject either during or after the recount ordeal.”
“If McKay was truly dismayed at the time about Ed Cassidy’s call, I simply cannot understand why he didn’t just pick up the phone to make me aware of his concern about my aide’s call,” Hastings continued.
In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, McKay said he was “concerned” and “dismayed” by a call from Cassidy a few weeks after the November 2004 elections.
McKay testified that Cassidy called him to “inquire on behalf of the Congressman” about the status of any federal probe into voter fraud. McKay said he reminded Cassidy that he was certain he was not asking him to “reveal information” about the status of a probe or “lobby me on one.”
“He agreed that it would be improper and ended the conversation in a most expeditious fashion,” McKay said, explaining that he then summoned his top staffers to discuss the troublesome phone call. “We all agreed that I stopped Mr. Cassidy before he entered clearly inappropriate territory and that it was not necessary to take the matter any further.”
Now a top aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Cassidy released a statement Tuesday in which he agreed that he contacted McKay, but denied that anything improper was said.
“My conversation with John McKay was a routine effort to determine whether allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election were, or were not, being investigated by federal authorities,” Cassidy stated. “I am pleased that Mr. McKay recalls both our agreement to respect these boundaries and my subsequent decision to end the conversation promptly.”
In a statement released late Tuesday, Boehner said that both Cassidy and McKay had made it “abundantly clear” that no “impropriety” took place during their conversation.
The dustup involving the top Congressional staffer was just one subplot in the complicated drama surrounding the ousted U.S. attorneys.
Iglesias, McKay, Bud Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Arkansas, and Carol Lam, the ousted U.S. attorney for the Southern district of California, all testified before the House and Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The most charged allegations stemmed from Iglesias, who claimed that he felt “pressured” and “leaned on” during an “unprecedented” call to his home by Domenici at the end of October 2006.
Iglesias said that Domenici asked him whether specific indictments in the corruption probe would be “filed before November.” When Iglesias replied in the negative, he testified that the Senator said, “I’m very sorry to hear that” and that the phone line abruptly went dead.
“I felt sick afterwards. I felt that he was upset at hearing the answer that he received,” Iglesias testified. “I felt leaned-on, I felt pressure to get these matters moving.”
Iglesias also detailed a similar phone call from Wilson on about Oct. 16, 2006, in which Wilson, he testified, inquired about “sealed indictments.”
“Red flags went up in my head … we cannot talk about a sealed indictment,” Iglesias said. “I was evasive and nonresponsive to her question.”
“She was not happy with that answer,” Iglesias added.
Iglesias’ testimony conflicts with statements released Sunday and Monday, respectively, by Domenici and Wilson.
In her statement, Wilson said that a constituent “with knowledge of ongoing investigations” told her in the fall that Iglesias was “intentionally delaying corruption prosecutions.”
Wilson called that allegation “deeply troubling” and said she called Iglesias directly to clarify the situation.
“My call was not about any particular case or person, nor was it motivated by politics or partisanship,” Wilson said. “I did not ask about the timing of any indictments and I did not tell Mr. Iglesias what course of action I thought he should take or pressure him in any way.
“If the purpose of my call has somehow been misperceived, I am sorry for any confusion,” she added. “I thought it was important for Mr. Iglesias to receive this information and, if necessary, have the opportunity to clear his name.”
In his statement, Domenici apologized for contacting Iglesias, but maintained he did nothing improper.
“At no time in that conversation or any other conversation with Mr. Iglesias did I ever tell him what course of action I thought he should take on any legal matter,” Domenici said. “I have never pressured him nor threatened him in any way.”
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.