A former Justice Department official has offered a new explanation for the firing of John McKay as U.S. attorney for Western Washington...

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A former Justice Department official has offered a new explanation for the firing of John McKay as U.S. attorney for Western Washington. And the department now has an earlier date for when it first recommended that the White House fire McKay — March 2, 2005, more than 18 months earlier than previously disclosed, according to documents released Thursday.

The new timetable contradicts several of the explanations the department has offered in recent weeks for McKay’s dismissal. It also raises new questions about whether McKay’s firing may have been connected to his handling of complaints about the hotly contested 2004 governor’s race in Washington state, which was being litigated in March 2005.

The mystery over McKay’s firing took a highly emotional turn Thursday during a House Judiciary Committee hearing when it was revealed that a senior Justice Department official suggested 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.

McKay said Thursday he was “disgusted” that the unsolved Wales’ slaying had been raised in connection with his dismissal. He said it was the first he’d heard of that justification.

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The targeting of McKay for dismissal March 2, 2005, came at a point when prominent Washington state Republicans were calling on McKay to file charges over allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 governor’s race. Democrat Christine Gregoire narrowly defeated Republican Dino Rossi after two recounts, and the Washington state Republican Party filed a lawsuit in state court in January 2005 to have the results overturned.

McKay had FBI investigators and federal prosecutors examine the evidence, but they concluded, in conjunction with Justice Department headquarters, that there was not sufficient grounds to file charges, he said.

Up to now, documents released by the Justice Department have indicated that McKay was first targeted to be fired Sept. 13, 2006, when his name appeared in an e-mail from former Justice Department Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson to former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

But, in fact, Sampson first recommended that Miers and the White House fire McKay in a March 2, 2005, e-mail in which Sampson ranked all 93 U.S. attorneys.

“If that’s true, all the reasons they gave for my dismissal are false,” McKay said. “Every one of their explanations does not apply if that’s true.”

The document released Thursday shows John McKay’s name with a line through it.

As Sampson explained to Miers, a line through a name meant: “Recommend removing; weak U.S. Attorneys who have been ineffectual managers and prosecutors, chafed against Administration initiatives, etc.”

During Senate testimony last month, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said McKay was fired because of “serious concerns about his judgment.”

Gonzales did not mention Wales. Instead, he gave as reasons McKay’s aggressive advocacy in August 2006 of an information-sharing system and his complaints in a Sept. 22, 2006, newspaper story about budgetary constraints.

At Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., revealed that Sampson had told committee investigators that McKay may have been listed for firing in March 2005 because he had conflicts with superiors over the handling of the Wales investigation. Watt asked witness James Comey, deputy attorney general from October 2003 to August 2005, if he had heard that explanation. Comey testified that he knew nothing about it.

“I don’t remember discussing that tragedy with anyone other than Mr. McKay,” Comey told Watt, “and it was simply briefly to talk to him about how awful it was. … He cared very passionately about finding the person who killed his AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney].” Comey testified he had one informal conversation with Sampson on Feb. 28, 2005, about weak U.S. attorneys, but McKay was not among them.

Charlie Mandigo, the special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI at the time, said there was tension between McKay’s office and the Department of Justice over the resources devoted to solving the slaying of Wales, who was gunned down one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We both felt it was not getting the support out of Washington, D.C.,” Mandigo said. “We both recognized that, but for 9/11, the FBI and the DOJ would have been all over this.

“John was fairly aggressive when it came to Wales. We all were,” Mandigo said.

McKay admitted he “pushed hard” for superiors to devote more time and resources to the hunt for Wales’ killer. The Justice Department assigned the case to a special prosecutor, Joshua Nesbitt, from Washington, D.C. But Nesbitt had no experience investigating or prosecuting homicides and had never managed a major case.

“He was right out of the weeds,” Mandigo said. The Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office — filled with Wales’ friends and colleagues — felt the case was being short-changed.

A more experienced prosecutor later replaced Nesbitt.

Many in the Seattle office also were offended when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft did not attend Wales’ funeral or any of the anniversary memorials. Attorney General Gonzales was invited to attend the fifth-year anniversary of Wales’ death last year, but instead sent Michael Battle — the man who would fire McKay two months later.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com. Mike Carter: 206-464-3706.