David Iglesias was a rising star in the Republican Party when, just before Christmas in 2006, he received an unexpected phone call from a superior at the Justice Department telling him to resign as U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico. He was given no reason, but ultimately learned that his firing was part of a larger effort by political appointees at the top of the department to dismiss U.S. attorneys who appeared to have raised the ire of Republican leadership. Iglesias's dismissal, along with that of seven other U.S. attorneys, set off one of the biggest scandals at the Justice Department in decades, ultimately leading to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The firings and subsequent fallout exposed how the Justice Department had become heavily politicized in its appointment of immigration judges and new attorneys and in its choice of civil rights cases. Still, many of the key players have never testified publicly, and the House of Representatives recently filed a lawsuit seeking to compel testimony from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten. In a new book, In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration, Iglesias details how he came to realize that his dismissal was part of a broader politicization of the Justice Department.
How do you think the scandal impacted the Justice Department in both the short and long term?
It had a catastrophic effect on morale both within main Justice and also in the 93 U.S. attorneys offices across the country. I've actually had conversations with currently serving U.S. attorneys and some people at main Justice as recently as a week ago and they said it was a really hard time for DOJ because [it] had been the untouchable department in terms of politicization. Something like this had never happened previously, at least to this level, to this extent. The good news is that with [Attorney General Michael] Mukasey, what I'm hearing is that things have calmed down. Things aren't back to normal yet, but at least there is not the sense that we have an incompetent leader or a leader who may have perjured himself, which is what the sense was when Gonzales was there.
Some people say that the scandal did not reach down to most career prosecutors. Do you think some of the politicization was overblown?
I think it kind of had a reverse effect. There was a sense at first that maybe it was going to make it less likely for U.S. attorneys to take more controversial cases, public corruption cases. It's had the opposite effect. You've got U.S. attorneys that are really independent in a way they haven't been in years.
They've been emboldened. I'll give you a very minor example. There was an edict from the executive office of U.S. attorneys that U.S. attorneys were not allowed to use the DOJ seal of the Justice Department for any kind of gift. I used to give away coins with the DOJ seal to any assistant U.S. attorney that won a case. Nothing wrong with it. Well, [the executive office] said you have to stop doing this. This is since I left. U.S. attorneys pushed back, saying this is ridiculous, we've been doing this for decades. And EOUSA backed down. Under Gonzales's reign they would have enforced it.
Did you realize how politicized certain aspects of the department—civil rights, immigration judges—had gotten before you were fired? Were there obvious signs?
The only hint that I had that there were other problems were the allegations about the immigration law judges [that the posts were given away as political prizes to loyal Republicans with little knowledge of immigration]. So for the most part I wasn't aware, and I don't remember my colleagues saying, "Hey, there are some real problems at main Justice." We were the symptoms of a much bigger problem. When it went so high [visibility] and Congress started exercising its oversight role...they realized we have an enormous problem here, that it was a lot bigger than just eight U.S. attorneys who were forced out.
As a loyal Republican, you seemed an odd choice for the firing list. In your book, you mention some possibilities: concern over voter fraud cases and the corruption investigation into a leading New Mexico Democrat. Why do you think you ultimately landed on the list?
I think there had been a simmering discontent by the state Republican Party in New Mexico that I didn't find any prosecutable voter fraud cases. I think they were willing to give me a reprieve, thinking I was going to quickly investigate and prosecute Manny Aragon, who was a very prominent local Democrat [and former state Senate president] in New Mexico. There has been an aura of corruption around him for decades, but he has never been charged with anything [until 2007]. The Republicans thought this is our chance to take this guy out. Well, white-collar investigations take a long time. We wanted to get ready, do it right, and then I get the call from [Republican Rep.] Heather Wilson and then from [Republican Sen.] Pete Dominici [both of New Mexico]. They're both talking about this case. And when they didn't hear the answer that they wanted to hear, which was, "Yeah, I'll hurry this up so that Heather Wilson can use this for her campaign," they figured this guy is out because he's politically tone deaf. And I think that was the trigger.