By JAMES W. BROSNAN
An independent government agency is investigating a complaint that President Bush illegally fired the U.S. attorney for New Mexico because the prosecutor spent too much time away from the office on Naval Reserve duty.
Former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias said he filed the complaint this week with the Office of Special Counsel, the agency that enforces the federal law that bars employers from denying benefits to employees because of their National Guard or Reserve obligations.
Iglesias was one of eight U.S. attorneys fired by Bush last year. All eight were Republicans initially appointed by Bush.
Justice Department officials have not directly claimed that Iglesias was fired because of the more than 40 days a year he was away on Reserve duty, but they have accused him of being an "absentee landlord" who delegated too many responsibilities to his first assistant, Larry Gomez, now the acting U.S. attorney.
The Office of Special Counsel, which also investigates whistleblower complaints and suspected illegal political activity by government workers, has the power in a normal case to order reinstatement and back pay for an employee who has suffered discrimination.
But the Constitution gives Bush the authority to hire and fire U.S. attorneys, and the Office of Special Counsel would have to resolve the conflict.
"There is some interpretation that needs to be done since a U.S. attorney is a political appointee," said Jim Mitchell, director of communications for the Office of Special Counsel.
Iglesias said he is not seeking reinstatement but would accept back pay. He said he filed the complaint to avail himself of another agency with subpoena power to determine the truth behind his dismissal.
Iglesias was one of seven U.S. attorneys fired Dec. 7. Another U.S. attorney was fired earlier.
Justice Department officials initially claimed that all were fired for performance problems, but Democrats in Congress are investigating to determine whether politics played a role.
In the case of Iglesias, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., other influential New Mexico Republicans and White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove all complained to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that Iglesias did not prosecute alleged voter fraud in the 2004 election.
Iglesias has said he believes his firing was triggered by two phone calls last October — one from Domenici and one from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. — that Iglesias charges were attempts to pressure him to speed up indictments in a local corruption probe involving a prominent Albuquerque Democrat.
But a "talking points" memo prepared for Justice Department officials testifying before Congress said Iglesias was "perceived to be an ‘absentee landlord’ who relies on the FAUSA (First Assistant United States Attorney) to run the office."
"I still believe my firing was political in nature, but I’m taking their statements at face value," said Iglesias.
Iglesias said Justice officials can’t be complaining about the two to three weeks of vacation he took each year or the trips he took on Justice Department business.
"That leaves the military duty. I want to see whether there is any documentation that corroborates that possibility," said Iglesias.
Iglesias, who remains unemployed, is about to start another two weeks of Reserve duty on Friday.