TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. A record breaking turnout is expected on Election Day. Today, we're talking about dirty tricks and political manipulation of the voting process. Our first guest, David Iglesias, is a former U.S. attorney in New Mexico who thinks he was fired because of his refusal to prosecute voting fraud cases that he thought were without merit - cases that would have likely cut down on Democratic votes - and for refusing to rush an indictment of Democratic leaders, right before the 2006 election. Iglesias is one of the nine U.S. attorneys who were fired by the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales, for what many believe were politically-motivated reasons.
Late last month, attorney general Michael Mukasey appointed a special prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought against Alberto Gonzales and other officials, in connections with the firings. Iglesias's case is cited as the key reason why a counsel should be appointed.
David Iglesias has written a new book called, "In Justice: Inside the Scandal That Rocked the Bush Administration." He writes that in 2002, less than a year after he stepped into his new job, the Justice Department sent an email to every U.S. attorney, suggesting they should immediately start investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases.
Iglesias didn't realize this emphasis was unique to the Bush administration. I asked him what made this emphasis on voting fraud unusual.
Mr. DAVID IGLESIAS (Former U.S. Attorney, New Mexico): You have to understand, Terry, there are 4,000 - approximately 4,000 federal criminal laws to prosecute. Most of the voter-fraud crimes are contained in just a couple of statutes. There's just not a whole lot - a lot there, and they've not really become - they have not traditionally been something that U.S. attorneys spent much time doing.
For instance, in my office in New Mexico, and my district covers the entire state, the last voter fraud prosecution was in 1992. So it had been 10 years. So I thought it was - later as I reconstructed things, I found it was odd that there was a push to investigate and prosecute voter-fraud cases, because for the most part they're misdemeanors.
They're not serious felonies in which people are going to spend years in federal prison. In one case that I did find, I reviewed the file, I got it out of archives, and I looked at it, and I think the two ladies that were convicted, ended up serving two years, a year and a half. I mean, very, very minor sentences.
GROSS: You point out that the emphasis had formerly been on safeguarding the franchise for disadvantaged citizens of every description, but now the new emphasis in the Bush administration was on using federal power to take people off the rolls, who were accused of voter fraud. At what point did you start to think that there was a political agenda behind this emphasis on voter fraud?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, after I examined the evidence, which is what any good ethical prosecutor does, I set up an election-fraud task force in 2004, based on the apparent explosion of voter fraud problems we were having in New Mexico. Lots of the local media ran stories. Underage people were getting voter-registration forms.
So I sincerely believe there to be a significant problem in New Mexico with voter fraud. So I set up a task force, which I was roundly criticized by Republican conservative operatives, stating that they thought it was a joke. They believed that there was a tremendous problem, and it was my duty to investigate it by myself, just the FBI and myself.
I refused to do that, because I knew enough about politics in New Mexico, to know that anytime you're snooping around using FBI agents, it could be perceived as a partisan-political investigation. So I included Democrats, I included state and local officials, in addition to the Justice Department Public Integrity Section and the FBI.
I wanted this to be above board and bipartisan. And so we investigated, and after almost two years, I didn't find one case I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So, I didn't file anything.
GROSS: So, what did you think the political motivation was for the Bush administration emphasis on finding and prosecuting voter fraud?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, all it takes is a few well-timed and well-placed voter-fraud prosecutions, before an election to send a chilling message out to the community. And frankly, there are people out there who have the right to vote, but maybe afraid that if they didn't get their registration perfectly right, they're subject to federal investigation and prosecution.
And that's - I mean, that crosses over from a legitimate law-enforcement reason into - and improper political reason. So, reconstructing what happened to me, it was clear to me that the Justice Department's awesome powers was being used in an improper partisan way.
GROSS: To intimidate people?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, sure. In fact, there are instances I'm aware of, not in New Mexico, but across the country, where older voters who don't have driver's licenses, because they're legally blind, but perhaps they don't have a birth certificate, they can't prove where they were born.
They can't vote, and that strikes me as being unbelievably un-American that somebody can't vote, because they can't find their driver's license, or they can't find their birth certificate.
GROSS: Now, you were also investigating a group called ACORN, which is an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. And one of their projects is to register new voters. What were you looking into with ACORN?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Right. ACORN was active in New Mexico, which is considered a swing state and a bellwether state. We - in fact, the one case that had some merit that at the end of the day we couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt, was involving a lady who worked for ACORN, who was signing up people who did not have the right to vote.
For example, she signed up a 15-year-old boy. However, after interviewing her, it became clear to us that she did it for the money. She was getting paid on a piecemeal basis. She was low-income herself, so, you know, one of the things I would've had to prove to trial was that she did this to - with the intent to affect the outcome of that election, and it was clear to me that she couldn't care about the outcome of the election, and should - had this gone to trial, she would have - I don't think it would even gone to the jury. I think the judge would have thrown it out of court.
GROSS: Were you pressured to keep pursuing this, even though you thought that you didn't have a case?
Mr. IGLESIAS: I wasn't pressured directly by the Justice Department. I mean, Alberto Gonzales or his deputy didn't call me and say, you know, you keep that - to find these cases and crack it down. It was the local Republicans. It was the local conservative wing, the activists who were just convinced there were hundreds, if not more, provable cases of voter fraud, and it was my duty to investigate and prosecute.
So, I would get phone calls, long and rambling phone calls, I would get emails. I remember seeing an email in last week's report about the state-party chairman saying you need to be a part of the team, and which was unbelievably inappropriate, because a U.S. attorney once in office has to remain apolitical. It's required of us just like it is for a federal judge, that the state party chairman did not understand that difference.
I ignored that email. But there were lots of instances in which my voting-fraud coordinator, courier federal prosecutor, would also receive these emails and these letters basically saying, you all are asleep at the watch. You need to do something. You need to prosecute these cases.
GROSS: They way you describe it in your book, it sounds like you think that Republicans pressured you to investigate voter fraud, because the Republican party thought it would give them the edge in the election. So, how does investigating voter fraud give Republicans the edge? Was - is the implication that it would eliminate Democratic votes?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Sure, I never had any pressure to investigate Republican political figures or Republican-backed organizations. The point to make here is you have to remember, in the 2000, Al Gore's margin of victory in New Mexico was less than 400 votes. It was a razor-thin race.
States like New Mexico that are that close, a perfectly-timed investigation and indictment can make a difference in terms of scaring away those people who may have a right to vote, but may be afraid that they didn't fill out their paperwork right. They may think there are federal agents in polling booths - polling stations which is not the fact, but they may think that. You know, what this experience taught me was to build additional firewalls between partisan-political activity and law-enforcement activities.
GROSS: So, in other words, the type of voting fraud that you were being asked to investigate involved the - demographically the kind of voter, who would more typically be a Democrat, immigrants, minorities, poor people - is that...
Mr. IGLESIAS: Which is - my understanding is, that's the type of demographic that ACORN was looking at.
GROSS: When they were registering people.
Mr. IGLESIAS: ACORN wasn't going to high-income areas that tend to be Republican. They weren't going to - or rather, they were going to more low-income areas that have yes, a lot of immigrants, minority, elderly populations.
GROSS: You were just one of the U.S. attorneys who was fired for what appears to have been political reasons. What did you learn from some of your fellow fired U.S. attorneys, about pressure on them to pursue voting irregularities that they didn't think were real issues?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, I can think of two other districts in the United States. One would be the Western District of Washington, which is the Seattle area in which John McCain received the phone call from Congressman Doc Hastings, chief of staff, in which they wanted to, you know - inquiring about confidential matters.
If you recall, there was a gubernatorial race that had to be recounted three times there, and they wanted John to get involved in that, even though it's purely a state matter, didn't have a federal nexus. There was tremendous pressures put on John to investigate and indict people. Well, John looked at the evidence just like I did, and didn't have a provable case, so he naturally didn't file a case.
When John was being interviewed by Harriet Miers at the White House, the first question she asked John was why are the Washington Republicans so angry at you? So that tells me very clearly they had communicated their anger about John not indicting bogus cases to the White House.
The other district was in Kansas City in which Todd Graves was also put under pressure to find voter-fraud cases. Missouri is a swing state also, and there was allegations of ongoing systemic voter fraud. Todd looked into the matter, investigated it, didn't have any provable cases, so he didn't file it either. Todd was the first - Todd Graves was the first U.S. attorney to be forced out in 2006, it later turned out to be nine of us.
But Todd was the first one, and in my way of thinking, Todd was the beta. He was the test case to see if there'd be any media or political pushback, and there was none.
GROSS: You write in your book "In Justice," a U.S. attorney with a partisan agenda could tie up otherwise settled election results with all manner of investigation, indictments and prosecutions, no matter what the merits of the case.
In short, U.S. attorneys wielded the power to wreak havoc on the electoral process, if they so intended. What do you mean by that? How could U.S. attorneys wreak havoc on the electoral process?
Mr. IGLESIAS: If it's a close race in which it's unsettled who the actual winner is. I mean, you go back to Florida in 2000. What if the U.S. attorneys then would have started filing indictments, claiming that one side or the other were engaging in massive voter-fraud case - voter fraud activities, that would've had to have been litigated, that would've affected the actual outcome of who actually won.
So, you could've used the criminal process in a partisan-political matter. And it's my contention that's not good. That's not a good practice, especially since when you keep in mind, an indictment is merely an accusation. It's not proof. It's saying we have some evidence, we have enough evidence we think, to charge somebody. But it's not at the point yet we could prove it in court.
You get an unscrupulous U.S. attorney who files this type of election-fraud or voter-fraud matter in an unsettled case, and it's going to have a devastating impact on finding out who the winner actually is.
GROSS: You write in your book that you think the U.S. attorneys were expected to help fulfill Karl Rove's goal of a permanent Republican majority. Would you explain what you mean?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, Karl Rove had this idea that it'd be possible to actually create a permanent Republican majority in Congress on both sides of the House, and to - I guess, even into the White House, to have a monopoly over the two of the three branches of the government.
And I think Rove is the first person who was able to figure out that you could use the Justice Department in a partisan way to affect the outcome of the elections, using the awesome power of the federal indictment. And what he failed to understand, or refused to understand is the Justice Department was one agency that had a long history of staying above partisan matters.
That it was the watchdog, it was the agency that provided legal advice for the President about what he could or could not do. And there was the attempt which began, but I'm glad to say, I don't think was successful.
But there was the attempt to politicize the Justice Department at the highest levels and throughout the country, because most of the Justice Department is comprised of United States attorneys out in the districts. We have a lot more federal prosecutors out in the 50 states, than work at Washington D.C.
GROSS: When you were describing that you think the U.S. attorneys were expected to help fulfill Karl Rove's goal of a permanent Republican majority, do you think that part of that goal was to have you as attorneys in place, who would, you know, actively pursue voter-fraud cases that would get Democrats knocked of the rolls, and then have Republican judges in place, who would rule on related cases in ways that would be favorable to the Republican party?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Oh, I think that's conceivable. The thing you have to keep in mind is we never got any direction, any specific direction from Karl Rove. This was in my view, and I think once we get to the evidence in the White House, you'll see probably memoranda and emails from Rove to Gonzales, indicating what he would like to see done.
But none of that's been released, and the White House is fighting Congress in terms of producing evidence. But I mean, I believe the evidence suggesting what you just stated is out there. But no one has had the chance to reveal it, because of alleged executive-privilege matters.
GROSS: The Justice Department released a report late last month by its inspector general, criticizing the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys in the process that led to them, and the report recommends a prosecutor be named to continue the investigation.
Your case was singled out as the key reason why a council should be appointed to investigate whether any criminal offense was committed, surrounding your firing. How does that feel to have your case singled out as perhaps the most egregious example?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Vindication, that the rule of law actually exists. It's not some dry arcane academic concept that I've taught about with the Navy. Last week was a good week. It really restored my faith in checks and balances.
It restored my faith that the Justice Department is back toward becoming what it once was, which was an apolitical organization that gives its best honest broker advice to the people in power. And I have faith that eventually we'll find out what happened, both through the litigation process that the Congress has filed against White House officials, and both through this special prosecutor who's been appointed.
GROSS: Who would you like to see testify, that has so far refused to comply?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Well, clearly, Karl Rove, Harriett Miers, Josh Bolton. You know, those are critical to find out what the plan was to use U.S. attorneys in a improper manner.
GROSS: Is there any single question you'd like - most like to know the answer to?
Mr. IGLESIAS: I'd just like to know why they thought they could get away with it? I mean, did they really think that the power structure in Washington D.C. would allow this? I'm convinced that had this scandal broken two years prior, that it would have never made the light of day, because Congress would not have exercised its oversight, it would have never called hearings, and my colleagues and I would have had to have gone away quietly, because no one would have listened.
GROSS: And because it was a Republican Congress?
Mr. IGLESIAS: Because it was a Republican Congress, who would have done the old institutional nudge and wink, and wouldn't have done anything. And I'm very grateful to people like Chuck Schumer and John Conyers for exercising their legitimate oversight, and uncovering what turned out to be this enormous can of worms. Not just with the U.S. attorneys, but with other things going on at the Justice Department.
GROSS: Do you think that there's still partisan pressure on U.S. attorneys?
Mr. IGLESIAS: I don't believe so. And I base it on speaking with quite a few currently-serving United States attorneys that have all confirmed to me. Not only have they supported my colleagues and me, but that they have unprecedented independence, which is really what the scandal is all about.
It's about maintaining the independence, the historic independence of United States attorneys, who have to be able to call the shots, and not let any outside person or organization do that for them.
GROSS: What are you going to be looking for on the days preceding the election, and on Election Day, regarding how partisan politics might enter the process of investigating voter fraud?
Mr. IGLESIAS: I would look to see if there are any hi-vis(ph) investigations announced by United States attorneys across the country, if they're looking for voter fraud, if they're setting up task forces like I did, and Steve Biskupic did in Milwaukee in 2004. But I would look and see if allegations of voter fraud in the community are actually being investigated, and to what extent are they receiving ink.
I do know, in Albuquerque for example last month, there were some coverage about voter fraud in terms of false registrations. And I'm glad to see that the guy that took my place hasn't taken the bait.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. IGLESIAS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: David Iglesias is one of nine U.S. attorneys whose firings are being investigated by a special prosecutor. His new book is called "In Justice."