By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales met with senior aides on Nov. 27 to review a plan to fire a group of U.S. attorneys, according to documents released last night, a disclosure that contradicts Gonzales's previous statement that he was not involved in "any discussions" about the dismissals.
Justice Department officials also announced last night that the department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility have launched a joint investigation into the firings, including an examination of whether any of the removals were improper and whether any Justice officials misled Congress about them.
The hour-long November meeting in the attorney general's conference room included Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and four other senior Justice officials, including the Gonzales aide who coordinated the firings, then-Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson, records show.
Documents detailing the previously undisclosed meeting appear to conflict with remarks by Gonzales at a March 13 news conference in which he portrayed himself as a CEO who had delegated to Sampson responsibility for the particulars of firing eight U.S. attorneys.
"I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," Gonzales said.
Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said last night that there is no "inconsistency" between the Nov. 27 meeting and Gonzales's remarks. She argued that Gonzales was simply emphasizing at the news conference that he was not involved in the details of Sampson's plans.
Scolinos also said there is no evidence that meeting participants reviewed a draft memo on the firing plan, written by Sampson, that was dated six days earlier and widely distributed among Justice Department and White House officials.
According to Scolinos and her deputy, Brian Roehrkasse, there is also no evidence that individual U.S. attorneys were discussed at the meeting.
The documents were among 283 pages of records released by the Justice Department last night. That development followed Sampson's agreement earlier yesterday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Sampson, who resigned March 12 after the discovery of e-mails contradicting assertions that the White House was not closely involved in the firings, may be the official best positioned to describe the roles top Justice and White House officials played in the ouster of the federal prosecutors.
The Justice Department also said yesterday that Monica Goodling, a senior counselor to Gonzales who worked closely with Sampson on the firings, took an indefinite personal leave from her job on Monday. A Justice official said that she is still employed there but that it is not clear when she will return.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7; another was sacked months earlier. The Justice Department's shifting explanations of the dismissals have sparked an uproar in Congress, where a handful of lawmakers from both parties have called for Gonzales's resignation. But President Bush this week expressed support for Gonzales.
Some of the prosecutors have objected to McNulty's assertion that the firings were related to their performance, and two have alleged that they were pressured by elected officials over the political corruption investigations they were conducting.
Sampson's attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, said in a letter yesterday to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking GOP member Arlen Specter (Pa.) that he hopes the voluntary testimony "will satisfy the need of the Congress to obtain information" from Sampson.
The documents released last night include more details about the extent of White House involvement in the firings. They show, for example, that a public affairs officer at the White House knew about the imminent dismissals before Scolinos, the Justice Department's chief public affairs officer, learned about them on Nov. 17.
Scolinos proved to be wrong when she predicted that the dismissals would not create a furor. At the time, just six of 93 U.S. attorneys were involved.
"Its only six US attorneys (there are 94) and I think most of them will resign quietly -- they don't get anything out of making it public [if] they were asked to leave in terms of future job prospects," Scolinos wrote in an e-mail. "I don't see it as being a national story -- especially if it phases in over a few months."
Key Democrats reacted strongly last night to news that Gonzales had presided at the planning meeting on the dismissals less than two weeks before they were carried out. Records indicate that the White House signed off on the plan on Dec. 4.
"The attorney general, more than any other Cabinet officer, must always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the first lawmaker to call for Gonzales's resignation. "If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general."
Sampson's planned testimony complicates the standoff that developed this week between Democrats and the Bush administration, which has refused demands for public testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides. The House and Senate judiciary committees have authorized, but not issued, subpoenas for the testimony.
Gonzales and other Justice Department officials have said that Sampson quit because he withheld information from other officials and Sampson's action may have led them to give misleading testimony before Congress. Sampson's attorney has disputed that characterization and has said that others in the Justice Department were fully aware of "several years" of discussions with the White House about dismissing the prosecutors.
The point is crucial because Justice officials said in previous statements and testimony that the White House was involved only tangentially, at the end of the process.
The White House offered this week to allow Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and other aides to be interviewed privately, without transcripts and not under oath. Democrats swiftly rejected the offer.
A fourth Republican lawmaker said yesterday that Gonzales should resign. Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (Ohio) said Gonzales has become a "lightning rod" for criticism. "It would be better for the president and the department if the attorney general were to step down," Gillmor said.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Amy Goldstein, washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane, and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.