By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's senior counselor yesterday refused to testify in the Senate about her involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Monica M. Goodling, who has taken an indefinite leave of absence, said in a sworn affidavit to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she will "decline to answer any and all questions" about the firings because she faces "a perilous environment in which to testify."
Goodling, who was also Justice's liaison to the White House, and her lawyers alleged that Democratic lawmakers have already concluded that improper motives were at play in Justice's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year. Goodling also pointed to indications that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty blames her and others for not fully briefing him, leading to inaccurate testimony to Congress.
Goodling's refusal to testify illustrates the rising political and legal stakes surrounding the removal of the federal prosecutors, and underscores the fissures developing among Gonzales and his current and former senior aides as the attorney general struggles to keep his job.
The decision means a senior aide to the nation's top law enforcement official is in the remarkable position of refusing to testify for fear of implicating herself in a crime. Her lawyer portrays the move as strategic and says she has done nothing wrong.
Goodling's refusal contrasts sharply with the approach of her onetime colleague D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff, who resigned March 12: He has agreed to testify before the same Senate committee. Sampson has also disputed allegations by Gonzales and others that he withheld information about White House participation in the firings, which were initially portrayed as a routine Justice Department personnel matter undertaken without significant White House involvement.
Sampson is expected to testify that "the fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing this subject for several years was well known" to many senior Justice officials, including Goodling and others who had briefed department witnesses, according to a statement issued by his attorney March 16.
"Hearings in a highly politicized environment like this can sometimes become a game of 'gotcha,' " the lawyer, Bradford A. Berenson, added yesterday, "but Kyle has decided to trust the Congress and the process."
But one of Goodling's lawyers, John Dowd, said in a statement yesterday that "the potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real."
Seven federal prosecutors were fired Dec. 7; another had been dismissed months earlier. The Justice Department's shifting explanations for the removals have sparked an uproar in Congress and have led to a standoff with the White House over whether presidential adviser Karl Rove, former counsel Harriet E. Miers and other Bush aides should testify publicly and under oath.
Goodling and Sampson are among six current or former Justice officials listed as potential witnesses by the Senate and House Judiciary panels, which are conducting separate investigations of the coordinated firings of the U.S. attorneys.
The others are William Mercer, acting associate attorney general; William Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general; Michael Elston, McNulty's chief of staff; and Michael A. Battle, the now-departed head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, who called the prosecutors to fire them.
House and Senate Democrats said they were disappointed that Goodling would not testify. Several raised questions about her motives.
"The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath," said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Goodling contended in her affidavit yesterday that Leahy and other lawmakers, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.), had already "drawn conclusions" about the prosecutors' firings.
Dowd said the "hostile and questionable environment in the present Congressional proceedings is at best ambiguous; more accurately, the environment can be described as legally perilous for Ms. Goodling."
The Justice Department declined to comment on Goodling's move.
Gonzales agreed earlier this month to allow aides to be interviewed privately without being subpoenaed. But Sampson and Battle no longer work for Justice, and Goodling is on leave.
In the House yesterday, a provision stripping the attorney general of the power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely without Senate confirmation passed overwhelmingly, following a 94 to 2 vote in the Senate last week. The bill strikes a provision inserted into the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act at the behest of the Justice Department. The White House has signaled that Bush will sign the bill.
In an interview last night with NBC News, Gonzales said attacks on his credibility "have pained me and my family" but said he will stay "as long as I have the confidence of the president."
"I think that every Cabinet official has to ask themselves every day, 'Is it still appropriate for me to lead a Cabinet department?' " he said. "It's something that I've been asking myself more lately than perhaps others."
Staff writer Peter Baker and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.