Hearing on U.S. attorney's ouster reveals Hastings' office contacted McKay
During the recount of the hotly contested 2004 governor's race in Washington state, the chief of staff to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., called former U.S...
Seattle Times staff reporters
During the recount of the hotly contested 2004 governor's race in Washington state, the chief of staff to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., called former U.S. Attorney John McKay to inquire about the status of any federal investigations into voter fraud, McKay told a Senate committee today.
McKay told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Ed Cassidy, who now works for Republican Minority Leader John Boehner, called him "some weeks" following the 2004 election, and after a third re-count had determined that Democrat Christine Gregoire had narrowly defeated Republican Dino Rossi.
"I was told the purpose of the call was to inquire on behalf of congressman Hastings" about the status of ongoing investigations of voter fraud, McKay said in response to a question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
McKay said that he informed Cassidy that the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington had already asked the public to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation with any evidence of voter fraud, so it could be investigated.
Cassidy then began to ask McKay whether any future action would be taken by the U.S. Attorney's office with regard to the governor's race.
"When Mr. Cassidy called me on future action I stopped him and I told him I was sure that he wasn't asking me on behalf" of Congressman Hastings, McKay told the committee, "because we both knew that would be improper. [Cassidy] agreed it would be improper and he ended the conversation in a most expeditious manner."
McKay and six other former U.S. Attorneys were called on Dec. 7 and asked to resign within six weeks. They were not given a reason for the firing at the time.
The firings have raised concerns among Democrats in Congress that the firings were politically motivated.
On Monday, prior to the hearing, Todd Young, Rep. Hastings' current chief of staff, said that "to the best of my knowledge," Cassidy, never called McKay to ask the former U.S. Attorney to investigate the 2004 governor's race.
Cassidy stopped working for Hastings in mid-2005, when he left to join the House Ethics Committee -- which Hastings then chaired.
Young said he has never spoken to McKay, on any subject.
Young also said that Rep. Hastings did not call McKay himself about the 2004 election.
Cassidy said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that his conversation with McKay "was a routine effort to determine whether allegations of voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election were, or were not, being investigated by federal authorities."
He said he understood the ethical boundaries of such a conversation and didn't violate them. Congressional rules prohibit House and Senate members from discussing ongoing investigations with federal prosecutors.
Hastings, in a statement also issued Tuesday, called Cassidy's conversation with McKay "entirely appropriate."
"It was a simple inquiry and nothing more -- and it was the only call to any federal official from my office on this subject either during or after the recount ordeal," Hastings said.
He said Tom McCabe, the executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, which backed Rossi, did contact his office in July 2005 to ask that Hastings urge the White House to fire McKay.
"I flat out refused to do so, which Ed Cassidy told him in the bluntest of terms," Hastings said."
Under further questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee, McKay said that after he received the phone call from Cassidy, he quickly alerted Jeffrey Sullivan, who was then the head of the criminal division in McKay's office, and Mark Bartlett, the first assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington.
McKay told Sullivan and Bartlett about the call, but he said the three of them collectively decided to take no further action because he felt he had stopped Cassidy short of making any improper requests.
Cassidy joined the office of Republican Minority Majority Leader John Boehner in February, as his senior advisor and floor assistant.
He advises Boehner on congressional ethics, election law, campaign finance reform and issues related to the rules and organization of Congress.
In early 2005, Republican leaders changed the chamber's rules in response to an admonishment of former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay by the ethics committee. They made it more difficult to initiate and complete ethics investigations, and punish suspected offenders.
They also ousted the Chairman, Joel Hefley of Colo., who had led the ethics panel to admonish DeLay three times.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert gave the chairmanship of the Ethics Committee to one of his loyalists, Rep. Hastings.
But Hastings, who was not used to public attention, and had not held a news conference during 10 years in office in D.C., immediately created further controversy: He fired the panel's staff director and attempted to replace him with Ed Cassidy, a longtime partisan political player, who had been chief of staff in his office for 10 years.
That caused a three-month standoff in the Ethics Committee. Democrats objected to Cassidy because of his role as a GOP activist, and because he was not an attorney like all the key investigators in Ethics.
Because of the Ethics Committee's unique bipartisan structure, the Democrats refused to allow the committee to organize. Hastings eventually relented and hired William O'Reilly, an anti-trust lawyer, to manage the panel's lawyers.
But he added Cassidy to the Ethics Committee's staff in a different role.
Later, Hefley himself criticized his party in this episode.
"If I had been the ranking member and the majority party tried to put a partisan chief of staff in as the staff director for the Ethics Committee, in contradiction to the standards of a nonpartisan staff, I would have had to react, just as (the Democratic leader) did," Hefley told The Hill newspaper, which covers Congress and its members.
The Senate Judiciary hearing is ongoing. When McKay and three other former U.S. Attorneys complete their testimony before the panel, they will testify this afternoon before the House Judiciary Committee.
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