By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007
The senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales submitted her resignation yesterday, becoming the third high-ranking Justice Department aide to quit in the aftermath of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
The departure of Monica M. Goodling, 33, comes two weeks after she first refused to answer questions from Congress about the firings, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Goodling's resignation also comes amid signs of sinking morale in some U.S. attorney's offices. In Minneapolis, three top managers staged a revolt Thursday, choosing to demote themselves rather than work for the newly confirmed U.S. attorney there, who is a former Gonzales aide, officials said. The department was so alarmed that it sent a Washington-based Justice official to Minneapolis this week to try to talk the three out of their plans, officials said.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee also stepped up their demands yesterday for hundreds of pages of unreleased records related to the firings that the Justice Department has deemed too sensitive for release to Congress.
Gonzales, meanwhile, has largely disappeared from public view as he prepares for a crucial April 17 appearance before the committee to explain his role in the firings.
Seven prosecutors were dismissed in December and another was removed earlier as part of a plan set in motion by the White House to replace U.S. attorneys viewed as insufficiently loyal to President Bush or his policies. Gonzales has sought to minimize his role in the firings, but recently released documents and testimony show he was regularly briefed on the effort.
Goodling's departure follows the resignation last month of D. Kyle Sampson as Gonzales's chief of staff. Sampson went on to testify before the Judiciary Committee that Gonzales was more directly involved in the firings than he had acknowledged, and that the attorney general was aware of proposals to circumvent the Senate confirmation process for some U.S. attorneys.
The Justice official who carried out the firings, Michael A. Battle, also left the department last month. Battle and other department officials have said his departure was not connected to the dismissals.
"Attorney General Gonzales's hold on the department gets more tenuous each day," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who has been among the most vocal Capitol Hill Democrats calling for Gonzales's resignation.
Sampson and Goodling worked closely together on the firings, particularly in the case of an Arkansas prosecutor removed to make way for a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove. Both participated in briefings for Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and others prior to testimony before Congress that has since been shown to be inaccurate.
Goodling and her attorneys have cited McNulty's complaints about her role in those briefings as a key reason for her refusal to testify.
In a letter late yesterday to Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Justice Department said Goodling's departure renders moot any concerns about conflicts between her and others who remain employed at Justice.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling also wrote that Gonzales and McNulty have "taken steps to ensure that no actual or apparent conflict of interest would arise" in connection with the prosecutor firings.
Another conflict erupted this week between Justice and Democrats over other records connected to the firings that have not been released to Congress. The committee is set to approve subpoenas Thursday demanding the release of those records, along with uncensored versions of previously released documents.
"We are trying to get to the truth," Leahy, Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to Gonzales yesterday. "Documents should be provided without restrictions on disclosure so that they may be used to question witnesses -- including yourself -- on any issue that is an important part of our inquiry."
Throughout the week, Gonzales has been reaching out to lawmakers, predominantly House Republicans. Aides on Capitol Hill confirmed that the attorney general spoke with Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah), the top Republican on a Judiciary subcommittee, and to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the minority whip and a close ally of Christian conservatives, who in the past have not been outspoken in support of Gonzales.
The discontent in Minnesota centers on U.S. Attorney Rachel K. Paulose, 34, who previously worked for Gonzales and his deputy, McNulty. She is part of a wave of more than a dozen Bush administration insiders appointed as federal prosecutors over the past two years, according to government records.
Paulose said in a statement that "the management team supports the decision of the three to step down" and that "the community will benefit from their focus on prosecuting high-profile, sophisticated cases in the years to come."
"We have work to do," Paulose said. "The office remains focused on our law enforcement priorities and service to this community."
David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., said the Minneapolis U.S. attorney's office had been relatively free of discontent in recent administrations.
"You never really hear political rumblings out of that office, so it comes as some surprise to see three people step down like this all at once," Schultz said. "It raises the question of whether attorneys are starting to become uncomfortable about the politicization that seems to be going on at Justice."
Paulose replaced veteran prosecutor Thomas B. Heffelfinger, who served as U.S. attorney under both President Bush and President George H.W. Bush. Heffelfinger abruptly resigned early last year to enter private practice.
Heffelfinger has said that he does not know whether he was slated for removal. E-mails from Sampson indicate that two U.S. attorneys targeted for dismissal resigned in early 2006; Heffelfinger is one of two who quit during that time to enter private practice. Heffelfinger declined to comment yesterday.
Paulose has drawn complaints from taxpayer advocates for an allegedly lavish "investiture" ceremony held last month to commemorate her confirmation as U.S. attorney, although Justice officials say the cost to the department was only $225. Paulose has also gained attention for her aggressive efforts to obtain "righteous sentences" in child pornography cases.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane and Washington Post staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.