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Originally published March 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 14, 2007 at 9:49 AM

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GOP chair called McKay about '04 election

White House messages detail how the U.S. attorney's fate was sealed.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Former Washington state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance acknowledged Tuesday that he contacted then-U.S. Attorney John McKay to inquire about the status of federal investigations into the 2004 governor's race while the outcome was still in dispute.

Vance also spoke regularly with presidential adviser Karl Rove's aides about the election, which Democrat Christine Gregoire ultimately won by 129 votes over Republican Dino Rossi. But Vance said he doesn't recall discussing with the White House McKay's performance or Republicans' desires for a formal federal investigation.

Vance's revelations come as Congress continues investigating whether the firings of McKay and seven other U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration were politically motivated.

Vance is one of at least two Republican officials who called McKay to inquire about a possible investigation by his office into the governor's race.

In testimony before Congress last week, McKay said that he received a call in late 2004 or early 2005 from Ed Cassidy, then chief of staff for Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, inquiring about the status of ongoing investigations into possible voter fraud. McKay said he cut off Cassidy before he could ask inappropriate questions.

McKay has never publicly mentioned being contacted by Vance. "I vaguely remember getting a call from Chris Vance" about the election, he said Tuesday, "but I don't remember anything significant about the call."

Vance could not recall when his conversation with McKay took place.

"I said 'You know, John, we're getting a lot of complaints from activists about this,' " Vance said.

"[McKay] said, 'Stop right there, I can't talk about this. If we are doing any kind of investigation or not, I can't comment,' " Vance recalled, "so I dropped it."

Vance said he felt compelled to approach McKay as a fellow Republican.

"Republican activists were furious because they felt that you had a Republican secretary of state [Sam Reed], a Republican county prosecutor in Norm Maleng and a Republican U.S. attorney, but still they saw the governorship slipping away, and they were just angry," Vance said.

New information came out Tuesday about contacts between the Justice Department and the White House concerning the firing of McKay and six other U.S. attorneys on Dec. 7. An eighth was fired earlier.

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Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson in January 2006 began identifying U.S. attorneys for the White House to fire. McKay was not on the original lists.

That changed Sept. 13.

In an e-mail to White House counsel Harriet Miers, Sampson put McKay's name in a group titled: "[U.S. Attorneys] We Now Should Consider Pushing Out."

The Sampson e-mail is among 112 pages of messages that the White House provided to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. While the documents show there was extensive coordination between the Justice Department and the White House on the firings, they do not clarify how or why McKay was targeted.

On Aug. 22, three weeks before Sampson recommended that Miers oust McKay, Miers and White House deputy counsel William Kelley met with McKay in Washington, D.C. McKay had requested the meeting after he discovered that a merit-selection panel had not named him one of three finalists to become a federal judge in Western Washington.

McKay said Miers and Kelley quickly asked him about Republican unhappiness in Washington state about his handling of the 2004 election.

McKay's office and the FBI conducted a preliminary investigation of voter-fraud allegations, but filed no charges and did not convene a grand jury because McKay and the Justice Department felt there was not sufficient evidence of federal crimes.

Democrats believe McKay was fired because he did not pursue the investigation, a claim denied by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department initially said McKay was fired for "performance-related" issues, then cited policy differences over sentencing and a communications system that McKay championed.

A few weeks after meeting with McKay, Miers and Kelley were working with Sampson and others at the Justice Department to finalize the list of U.S. attorneys to fire. The White House and Justice Department agreed on a plan Dec. 4, and implemented it Dec. 7, according to the documents.

Michael Battle, who resigned from the Justice Department last week, called McKay and the other targeted prosecutors to ask for resignations.

At the same time, according to a memo, someone from the White House Office of Political Affairs was supposed to call the "political lead" in Washington state, to alert them to McKay's dismissal. It isn't clear whom, if anyone, the White House called.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the senior Republican in the state's congressional delegation, and Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash, both first learned of the firings from the media, according to their spokespersons.

The Justice Department said senior senators in relevant states were notified of the firings, but Sen. Patty Murray said she was not informed by the administration, or asked for nominee suggestions.

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