Two former U.S. attorneys said today they believe ongoing investigations into the dismissals last year of eight federal prosecutors could...

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Two former U.S. attorneys said today they believe ongoing investigations into the dismissals last year of eight federal prosecutors could result in criminal charges against senior Justice Department officials.

John McKay, the former U.S. attorney for Western Washington, and David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, also said they believe White House political operative Karl Rove and his aides instigated the dismissals and ultimately decided who among the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys should be fired. But the White House on Wednesday flatly denied the firings were instigated by the White House.

McKay and Iglesias, who were among those fired, made their assertions during a meeting this morning with Seattle Times editors and reporters. The two appeared this afternoon along with Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney for Arizona, during a public-policy forum on the dismissals at Seattle University’s School of Law.

“I think there will be a criminal case that will come out of this,” McKay said during his meeting with Times journalists. This is going to get worse, not better.”

McKay cited ongoing investigations into the dismissals by the Senate and House Judiciary committees, and inquiries now under way by the Justice Department’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility.

McKay said he believes obstruction-of-justice charges will be filed if investigators conclude that the dismissal of any of the eight prosecutors was motivated by an attempt to influence ongoing public-corruption or voter-fraud investigations.

McKay said he believes the strongest evidence of obstruction is related to the dismissals of Iglesias and Carol Lam, the former U.S. Attorney in San Diego.

Last fall, Iglesias received calls from U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., inquiring whether public-corruption charges would be filed against prominent Democrats in the state prior to the November elections. Former New Mexico state Senate President Manny Aragon, a Democrat, and three others were eventually charged in April in what prosecutors say was a kickback scheme during construction of a new courthouse in Albuquerque.

Lam was investigating former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., and Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, the former third-highest-ranking CIA official, when senior Justice Department officials targeted her for dismissal. Bribery charges were ultimately filed against both men.

Additionally, McKay and Iglesias said they believe Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty lied under oath when they testified before Congress that the eight prosecutors were fired for performance-related reasons and because of policy disputes with Justice Department headquarters.

Last week, a senior Justice Department official suggested to a House Judiciary Committee that McKay was fired because he had criticized the way superiors were handling the investigation into the slaying of former Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Wales, gunned down in his Seattle home on Oct. 11, 2001.

Democrats have suggested McKay was fired because Republican activists were upset that he did not convene a grand jury and file charges related to the 2004 Washington state governor’s election, narrowly won by Democrat Christine Gregoire.

Responding to the charges by McKay and Iglesias, Department of Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse issued a statement this afternoon that read, in part: “After several hours of testimony by the Attorney General, over 6,000 pages of documents released to Congress and hours of interviews with other senior DOJ officials, it is clear that the Attorney General did not ask for the resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain.”

The statement added: “The Attorney General himself has stated that this process was not as rigorous as it should have been and he has since taken steps to institute better management practices with respect to U.S. Attorneys. He has taken full responsibility for his actions and in recent weeks has taken steps to leave the Department in a stronger and better place from the lessons learned from this matter.”

McKay and Iglesias also have both concluded that the White House was behind the firings.

They based their conclusions on thousands of pages of documents released by the Justice Department in recent weeks, as well as hours of public testimony by senior Justice Department officials and press reports of private depositions those officials gave to congressional investigators.

“It seems that given that no one takes credit at the Justice Department, that it can only be coming from one place, and that very strongly means the White House,” McKay said.

The White House has so far refused to turn over e-mails related to the firings, and has said it may no longer have access to millions of e-mails sent through Republican National Committee servers. Consequently, Iglesias said, “it’s hard for us to know who in the White House said what, on what date.”

“The people that would have a voice in this would be Karl Rove, [Rove aide] Scott Jennings, [former White House counsel] Harriet Miers, probably, yes,” he said. “But it’s hard for me to say ‘yes,’ [without] looking at those e-mails and memos that are probably out there and missing that this is what they said on this date about John and me and my colleagues.

“But that would explain why the wagons are so tightly circled,” Iglesias added.

Dan Bartlett, counselor to President Bush, insisted Wednesday that the White House played no role in the firings and merely “signed off ” on a list of attorneys to be dismissed provided by the Department of Justice.

“The Attorney General made the right decision,” Bartlett said. “We support the Attorney General in his decision. “

In testimony last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said McKay was fired because there were “serious concerns about his judgment.” The chief complaint, he said, was the manner in which McKay pushed an information-sharing project.

McKay said he began to have concerns about politics entering the Justice Department in early 2005, when Gonzales addressed all of the country’s U.S. attorneys in Scottsdale, Ariz., shortly after he took over as attorney general.

“His first speech to us was a ‘you work for the White House’ speech,” McKay recalled. ” ‘I work for the White House, you work for the White House.’ “

McKay said he thought at the time, “He couldn’t have meant that speech,” given the traditional independence of U.S. Attorneys. “It turns out he did.”

He looked around the meeting room and caught the eyes of his colleagues, who gave him looks of surprise at Gonzales’ remarks. “We were stunned at what he was saying.”

Iglesias said the silver lining of the prosecutor firings is that they have triggered a public and congressional recognition of the need to reassert the Justice Department’s independence.

“There was an attempt to inject the virus of partisan politics into the prosecutorial process,” Iglesias said. “That’s been stopped because of Congressional oversight and because of media scrutiny.”

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com