By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 16, 2007
The former Justice Department official who carried out the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year told Congress that several of the prosecutors had no performance problems and that a memo on the firings was distributed at a Nov. 27 meeting attended by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a Democratic senator said yesterday.
The statements to House and Senate investigators by Michael A. Battle, former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, represent another potential challenge to the credibility of Gonzales, who has said that he never saw any documents about the firings and that he had "lost confidence" in the prosecutors because of performance problems.
Battle's statements, relayed to reporters yesterday by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), came as Gonzales prepares for a make-or-break appearance on Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Prepared testimony released yesterday indicates Gonzales will apologize to the fired prosecutors for the way they were treated and will acknowledge that he has been "less than precise" in describing his role in the firings.
But Gonzales will also hold firm to his contentions that any missteps were "honest mistakes," that "nothing improper" took place, and that most of the details were handled by his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, according to the testimony.
"I have nothing to hide and . . . I am committed to assuring the Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here," Gonzales says in his remarks.
"I made mistakes in not ensuring that these U.S. attorneys received more dignified treatment," he adds later. "Others within the Department of Justice also made mistakes. As far as I know, these were honest mistakes of perception and judgment and not intentional acts of misconduct."
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7, and another was dismissed earlier, 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 some Republican lawmakers improperly contacted prosecutors about investigations and repeated misstatements by Gonzales and other Bush administration officials about the scope and nature of the dismissals. Democrats have also seized on presidential senior adviser Karl Rove's connection to some of the firings, and on revelations last week that the White House and the Republican National Committee have lost e-mails that are supposed to be preserved under record-keeping laws.
Gonzales and his deputy, Paul J. McNulty, initially told Congress that the firings were due to "performance-related" problems. Subsequent e-mails and other documents released by Justice showed that most had positive job reviews, that they and other U.S. attorneys were ranked on whether they were "loyal Bushies," and that Gonzales was more deeply involved in the process than he has sometimes acknowledged.
The statements by Battle, who left his job last month, are the first details to emerge from more than 20 hours of interviews with four top Gonzales aides over the past two weeks by staff members on the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The last of those interviews was conducted yesterday with Sampson, who testified publicly last month that he was only an "aggregator" of information on the firings and that ultimate responsibility rested with Gonzales.
Battle told investigators that he was "not aware of performance problems with respect to several" of the prosecutors when he called to fire them, Schumer said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.
Schumer said Battle also contradicted Gonzales's assertion at a March 13 news conference that he had not seen any documents or participated in any discussions about the firings. A memo related to the dismissals was passed out at a Nov. 27 meeting attended by Gonzales and others, Battle told investigators.
"Mike Battle remembers a memo was distributed," Schumer said.
In his prepared remarks for Tuesday, Gonzales says "my statement about 'discussions' was imprecise and overbroad, but it certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people."
Gonzales also addresses new documents released Friday showing that Sampson had identified five potential replacement prosecutors in early 2006, which appeared to contradict testimony from Sampson and repeated statements from Justice officials that no such list had been drawn up. Gonzales will testify that he remembers being told about two possible replacements, but that neither was approved and no one was lined up when the last seven firings were carried out.
Schumer and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel, immediately criticized Gonzales's planned testimony as falling short of answering key questions about the firings.
"The attorney general has offered another in a series of contradictory statements about the mass firing of U.S. attorneys," Leahy said. "It has been impossible to discern the truth in this matter based on the shifting explanations and changing stories coming out of the Justice Department and White House."
Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the committee's ranking Republican, also said Gonzales should consider reinstating the fired U.S. attorneys.
Specter and fellow Republican Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said Gonzales has an "uphill" climb to restore his credibility with Congress. Numerous Democrats and some Republicans have called on Gonzales to resign.
"He needs to explain what he did and why he did it," Graham said yesterday on "Fox News Sunday." "There are three or four different versions of his role in this, and he needs to bring clarity to what he did and why he did it."
In a related matter yesterday, an attorney for Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who faces an ethics inquiry into his role in the firings, declined to comment on an Albuquerque Journal report that Domenici directly contacted Rove to push for the firing of David C. Iglesias as New Mexico's U.S. attorney.
The report said Domenici's call to the White House came after a late October phone conversation with Iglesias about a local corruption case. Iglesias has testified he felt the call amounted to improper political pressure and believes it lies at the heart of his firing.
Domenici has acknowledged that he complained to Gonzales and McNulty about Iglesias, and has said he told the Justice Department he wanted Iglesias replaced "some months" before the call. But he has never acknowledged calling the White House about the issue.
Thousands of pages of documents released by Justice have yet to explain the rationale for Iglesias's firing. In his testimony last month, Sampson could not recall why Iglesias was put on the list, which did not happen until Nov. 7, less than two weeks after Domenici's call to Iglesias.