By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2007
The Justice Department is refusing to release hundreds of pages of additional documents related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, setting up a fresh clash with Capitol Hill in a controversy that continues to threaten Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's hold on his position.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose investigators have been allowed to view, but not obtain copies of, the records in question, is preparing subpoenas for those papers as well as for all e-mails or documents from the Justice Department and the White House connected to the dismissals of the prosecutors.
The new sparring comes as Senate Democrats postponed a long-planned budgetary appearance by Gonzales that had been scheduled for next week. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee panel overseeing the Justice Department budget, blamed Gonzales's "leadership failures" yesterday for the postponement and demanded that the prosecutor controversy be settled before he makes his plea for a budget increase.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) reiterated yesterday his call for Gonzales to resign and questioned whether the controversy had made it impossible for the attorney general to handle his day-to-day duties. "He cannot talk about the funding and functioning of the Justice Department until he clears the air on U.S. attorneys," Schumer said.
"Senator Leahy can certainly understand why Senator Mikulski did not want the attorney general to turn an important appropriations hearing on the department's budget priorities into a trial run for his appearance before the Judiciary Committee," said Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
The move to call off the budget hearing makes Gonzales's scheduled April 17 appearance before the judiciary panel even more of a make-or-break moment for Gonzales.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, called Mikulski's decision "regrettable" and said the attorney general should be able to make his budget pitch for an agency that helps "protect the nation from terrorism and violent crime."
But trust in Gonzales among Capitol Hill Democrats has evaporated amid revelations from the almost 4,000 pages of documents the Justice Department has released to date, some of which have contradicted a string of statements from the attorney general about the dismissals. Gonzales first told the Judiciary Committee, during a hearing 11 weeks ago, that there was no intent to avoid Senate confirmation for the replacements of the fired prosecutors.
He made similar remarks to Leahy and other senators at a private meeting in the Capitol early last month.
And at a March 13 news conference, Gonzales declared that he had been part of "no discussions" about the firings, casting the blame on his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who has since resigned.
But Sampson testified last week that Gonzales's statements were "not accurate" and that the attorney general was, in fact, regularly briefed about the evolving two-year plan to oust the prosecutors. Sampson also noted that Gonzales was aware of a staff-level idea to avoid Senate confirmation for the replacements.
Senate Democrats now want all Justice Department documents related to the firings, including
the previously unreleased ones deemed too sensitive for release by the agency. Democratic investigators were upset to learn about the additional batch of records in recent visits to the department, according to a Senate aide who requested anonymity to talk freely about the standoff.
The aide said the Senate Judiciary Committee "has lodged objections several times" about not being given the new documents. They were discovered over the past two weeks as staff investigators for the House and Senate judiciary panels, working in a special office inside the Justice Department, reviewed the censored portions of e-mails and other records that had already been sent to Capitol Hill in redacted form, according to Justice Department and Senate aides.
Under an earlier agreement between Congress and the department, congressional aides are allowed to examine the uncensored documents but not to make copies or to take any notes.
The redactions were related to the U.S. attorneys who were "considered for possible replacement but not asked to resign," Richard A. Hertling, acting assistant attorney general, wrote to Leahy last week.
Another Justice Department official said the additional documents were not turned over to Capitol Hill because of "privacy issues" related to personnel matters involving some of the U.S. attorneys who were ousted and others who were not.
In particular, the official said, one document, several hundred pages long, was an internal administrative review of one of the fired prosecutors and was so sensitive that it would have been entirely redacted if it had been sent to Capitol Hill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to issue a round of subpoenas next Thursday for these documents, as well as for all other documents the department has related to the firings. President Bush has objected to the issuance of subpoenas to White House advisers and for internal documents, allowing only the release of e-mail exchanges with the Justice Department or other third parties related to the firings.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved subpoenas for all Justice Department and White House records related to the firings. Leahy and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House panel, have been negotiating with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding regarding both staff testimony and document production.
Regardless of whether the Justice Department and White House documents are provided, Leahy plans to proceed with the April 17 hearing focusing on the attorney general. Gonzales is preparing intensively for the hearing, calling in outside advisers such as lobbyist Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, to help him get ready for the hearing.
Aides to Gonzales had been gearing up for the budget hearing before Mikulski as a warm-up to the Judiciary Committee testimony the following week, with White House officials saying weeks ago that they wanted the attorney general to make public appearances before April 17.
"The attorney general looks forward to testifying as soon as possible," Roehrkasse said.