By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales attempted again yesterday to explain the extent of his involvement in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, saying he saw no conflict between his version of events and testimony from his former chief of staff that some of the attorney general's remarks had been inaccurate.
Gonzales, who has struggled for weeks to clarify his precise role in the process, repeated his contention that he was only minimally involved in the dismissals. But Gonzales also confirmed that his former top aide, D. Kyle Sampson, had given him periodic updates on the progress of the firings project, which began at the White House in early 2005 and culminated with the removal of a group of prosecutors last December.
"There obviously remains some confusion about my involvement," Gonzales told reporters in Boston.
Gonzales's remarks came as House and Senate investigators began the first in a series of private interviews with senior Justice Department officials about the firings. The department's shifting explanations for the firings, and questions about Gonzales's role in them, have prompted calls for his resignation from some lawmakers.
The White House made a point yesterday of reasserting support for Gonzales in an effort to quash suspicions that President Bush was preparing to push out his longtime friend. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush has "100 percent confidence" in Gonzales, who has served Bush for more than 12 years.
Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that he had discussed the firings with Gonzales at least five times over a two-year period, and he said that some previous statements by Gonzales or Justice aides were inaccurate.
Sampson also testified that New Mexico prosecutor David C. Iglesias was added to the firings list just before the Nov. 7 elections, after Gonzales passed on a complaint about Iglesias from presidential adviser Karl Rove. Iglesias has alleged that he was fired as part of a "political hit" because of his refusal to bow to political pressure from GOP lawmakers to indict a local Democrat before the elections.
Gonzales, speaking with reporters after a forum on child safety at Boston's federal courthouse, said Sampson would inform him about his progress "from time to time" but consulted with others for details on the performance of specific prosecutors.
"I don't recall being involved in deliberations involving the question of whether or not a U.S. attorney should or should not be asked to resign," Gonzales said.
"I signed off on the recommendations and signed off on the implementation plan. And that's the extent of my involvement," he said. "I know what I did, and I know the motivations for the decisions that I made were not based on improper reasons."
Asked whether he would resign, Gonzales said: "I am focused on doing my job."
In his testimony Thursday, Sampson also said that, in hindsight, the administration should not have fired Iglesias, who had been viewed as an "up-and-comer" for several top Justice positions.
Iglesias said yesterday that Sampson's testimony "makes me feel even more vindicated."
"I've said all along that performance had nothing to do with the removal of me or my colleagues," Iglesias said in an interview. "I still want the Justice Department to issue a written retraction. . . . I just want to clear my name in this mess."
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a speech yesterday that Gonzales "has his work cut out for him" leading up to his scheduled testimony on April 17.
"A number of Republicans as well as all the Democrats have called for his resignation," Specter said. "I won't do that until he has had a chance to testify."
On Thursday, Perino said that Gonzales still "has some work to do up on Capitol Hill" and that Bush "wasn't satisfied with incomplete or inconsistent information being provided to Capitol Hill." The remarks were widely interpreted as a sign of waning White House support for Gonzales.
That impression led Bush to speak with Perino, sending her to the podium yesterday to declare "full," "absolute" and "complete" support for Gonzales. And in a White House that generally declines to answer personnel questions, Perino flatly denied that any possible replacements were being interviewed or invited to meet with the president.
House and Senate staffers conducted their first in a series of private interviews yesterday with a top Justice aide, Michael Elston, who is chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty.
Under the agreement for the interviews, congressional staff members refused to divulge what was said at the meeting, which lasted about 5 1/2 hours and was held in the offices of the House Judiciary Committee.
Elston was accompanied to he meeting by two lawyers from Justice, as well as by his own attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, according a statement provided by the House panel. Elston was questioned by a dozen House and Senate lawyers involved in the ongoing probe of the firings.
House and Senate investigators also want to interview half a dozen other current and former top Justice officials, including McNulty and Monica M. Goodling, the counselor to Gonzales who has invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying to Congress. The House Judiciary Committee said in a statement that it will seek to "negotiate terms" for an interview with Goodling through Justice officials and her attorney, John M. Dowd.
Staff writer Peter Baker and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.