House Panel Issues First Subpoena Over Firings

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena yesterday to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, demanding that the Justice Department turn over hundreds of pages of new or uncensored records related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

The subpoena is the first served in connection with the dismissals, and it escalates the legal confrontation between Democrats and the Bush administration, which has resisted demands for more documents and for public testimony from White House aides. The order comes just a week before the embattled attorney general is scheduled to testify in the Senate, a hearing widely considered crucial to his attempt to keep his job.

House and Senate committees have authorized a series of subpoenas in recent weeks as part of their investigations of the prosecutor firings but have not issued one until now.

"We have been patient in allowing the department to work through its concerns regarding the sensitive nature of some of these materials," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the judiciary panel's chairman, wrote Gonzales in a letter that accompanied the subpoena. "Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs."

The administration immediately signaled that it might oppose the demand. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that the administration would like "to reach an accommodation with the Congress" but added that doing so may not be possible.

"Much of the information that the Congress seeks pertains to individuals other than the U.S. attorneys who resigned," Roehrkasse said. "Furthermore, many of the documents Congress is now seeking have already been available to them for review. Because there are individual privacy interests implicated by publicly releasing this information, it is unfortunate the Congress would choose this option."

Seven U.S. attorneys were fired Dec. 7, and another was dismissed earlier in the year, as part of a plan that originated in the White House to replace some prosecutors based in part on their perceived disloyalty to President Bush and his policies. The uproar over the removals has grown amid allegations that Republican lawmakers had improper political contact with prosecutors and assertions by Democrats that the firings may have been an attempt to disrupt public corruption investigations.

The subpoena issued yesterday demands that Gonzales turn over the requested material by 2 p.m. Monday, according to a copy released by the House committee. It seeks full copies of some documents that were censored when they were previously released to Congress.

One key example is a chart compiled in March 2005 by D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, that evaluated all 93 U.S. attorneys. A copy provided to Congress was blacked out except for information on the eight prosecutors who were eventually fired.

The committee also wants hundreds of pages of Justice Department documents that congressional staff members have been allowed to examine without taking notes, as well as any other records related to the firings.

The administration characterized the subpoena as unreasonable and focused on information not germane to the dismissals.

"I think the Justice Department has been working very hard to be fully responsive to the request, as the president asked them to do," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

A subpoena is the first step in a long process that has rarely reached a clear legal conclusion in the past, experts say. If the administration refuses to comply with the subpoena, the Judiciary Committee could issue a citation for contempt of Congress, followed by a similar citation from the full Congress. That would then require the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia -- a former Gonzales aide -- to empanel a grand jury to consider criminal indictments.

In almost all cases, administrations have chosen to fully or substantially comply with such requests before they lead to criminal proceedings. In 1998, for example, a GOP-led House committee issued a contempt citation to then-Attorney General Janet Reno for refusing to turn over internal Justice Department memos. Justice offered a staff briefing on the documents, and the full House never acted on the citation.

"I'm not sure how the administration could win on this claim, in terms of keeping those documents," said Martin S. Lederman, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University who worked in Justice's Office of Legal Counsel from 1994 to 2002.

Gonzales is scheduled to appear Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has retreated from public view since last week to prepare for the testimony. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday that if additional documents are not turned over, Gonzales may be called back for a second round of testimony.

Senate Democrats also took another step yesterday to expand the scope of the investigation beyond the prosecutor dismissals. Wisconsin's Democratic senators, Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl, joined other members in demanding records and additional information about a federal public corruption case in that state, according to a letter they sent to Gonzales.

A federal appeals court in Chicago last week ordered a former Wisconsin state employee released after overturning her conviction.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also wrote to a senior Justice Department official yesterday to request information that shows "any political pressure" by the Justice Department or White House on the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis. Three senior prosecutors there abruptly relinquished their management positions last week; they said they could no longer work with the new U.S. attorney, Rachel K. Paulose, a former Gonzales aide who, at 34, is the nation's youngest chief federal prosecutor.

Separately, Democrats said they have scheduled private interviews this week with three current and former Gonzales aides: acting Associate Attorney General William W. Mercer today; former U.S. attorneys' chief Michael A. Battle tomorrow; and Sampson on Friday. Sampson testified at length before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

Also yesterday, Justice announced that Kevin J. O'Connor, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, will become Gonzales's new chief of staff. He will replace U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg of Alexandria, who was brought into the position last month on an interim basis after Sampson resigned in the fallout from the prosecutor firings.

The department said O'Connor will remain Connecticut's U.S. attorney for four to six months, when "he and the attorney general will determine whether he continues to hold both positions."

Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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