The Justice Department is under congressional scrutiny again.
Two House Judiciary subcommittees are exploring allegations that U.S. attorneys targeted Democratic office holders for "selective" prosecution as part of a strategy to help Republicans get elected.
The hearing Tuesday by the subcommittees examined whether federal prosecutors abused their power in a number of state and local corruption cases.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat, said the investigation was sparked by questions earlier this year about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
"Today we will try to answer a different, but no less troubling question: Did the U.S. attorneys who were not fired, the so-called loyal 'Bushies,' base federal prosecutions on improper partisan purposes rather than face and law?" Sanchez said.
Republicans cried political foul. Ranking member Randy Forbes of Virginia called the hearing an effort to create smoke where there is no fire.
"Today, our committee has been turned into a political circus when we should be addressing issues of serious public concern. The American people hopefully will see it for what it is – just one more in a string of political investigations," Forbes said.
But another Republican was at the witness table to express concern about the Justice Department. Richard Thornburgh was attorney general during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He said politics has no place in deciding whether to charge U.S. citizens with a crime.
"These citizens must have confidence that the department is conducting itself in a fair and impartial matter without actual political influence or the appearance of political influence. Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case," Thornburgh said.
Thornburgh, now a private lawyer, testified on behalf of a client — Cyril Wecht, a former Pittsburgh coroner accused of misusing his office for private gain. Thornburgh argued that the U.S. Attorney in western Pennsylvania is improperly using minor offenses – such as using an office fax for personal businesses — to bring felony charges against a popular Democrat in order to curry favor with the Justice Department.
Thornburgh's argument was not received well by the Republican members of the panel.
"Your testimony, to be blunt, is the most pathetic example of speculation and innuendo and hearsay that I have seen in seven years on this committee," said Congressman Ric Keller of Florida.
Under questioning, Thornburgh conceded that he had no personal knowledge that anyone in the Bush administration was involved in his client's case.
But there are allegations that the White House might have been involved in another case — that of former Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who is serving a seven-year prison term on a bribery conviction.
Birmingham attorney Doug Jones, who represented Siegelman when he was under federal investigation, testified that he was told by prosecutors that it looked like they didn't have a case. Then, he said, the story changed in 2004 — two years before Siegelman was expected to challenge the incumbent Republican governor.
"At that time, we were told very specifically that they'd had a meeting in Washington, and that Washington had told them to review the case top to bottom," Jones said.
Alabama Democrat Artur Davis said Siegelman's prosecution was driven by pure politics.
"Washington poltics, Karl Rove politics, and finally the politics that says 'If I can't beat your ideas, if I can't have confidence, I can beat you at the ballot box. Maybe I can just do it the old-fashioned way and just destroy you and your reputation,' " Davis said.
Republicans countered that if prosecutions were illegally brought, the courts are the proper venue to challenge them, not Congress.