By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Two months ago, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and his aides still had hopes of calming a growing political furor over the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.
"He wants to know what we can do from a comms perspective," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail referring to a communications strategy. " . . . I think from a straight news perspective we just want the stories to die."
Instead, the uproar over last year's dismissals has expanded to envelop Gonzales, most of his senior aides, the White House, presidential adviser Karl Rove, the Republican National Committee, three GOP members of Congress and U.S. attorney's offices nationwide. Three of Gonzales's senior aides have quit.
But the focus returns today to Gonzales himself, who has spent most of the past three weeks preparing for his pivotal appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. According to his prepared testimony, Gonzales will concede that the dismissals were badly mishandled but will continue to portray himself as only marginally involved in the details of the effort. Gonzales will focus particularly on reassuring Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who have so far declined to call for his resignation.
The committee, led by Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), plans to question Gonzales about contradictions between his previous statements and subsequent documents and testimony, which indicate that he was more closely involved in the firings than he has generally acknowledged. They will also focus on the involvement of Rove and other White House officials in the dismissals, Senate aides said.
Senators also may question Gonzales about other U.S. attorneys who were not fired but have drawn scrutiny in recent weeks for management problems or their handling of public corruption and voter fraud cases. Last weekend, U.S. Attorney Steven M. Biskupic of Milwaukee issued a statement defending his handling of a corruption case that was overturned by an appeals court.
Schumer, who has led the Judiciary Committee's investigation, said: "In a sense, the genie is out of the bottle. Over the last few years, there's been a general politicization and deprofessionalization of U.S. attorney's offices."
The conflict broadened again yesterday when Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) released a letter from an anonymous group of Justice Department employees contending that finalists for a prestigious departmental program were rejected last year based on their ties to Democrats or liberal causes. The allegations center on the Honors Program for new law school graduates, which historically was run by career employees but has been under the control of political appointees since 2002.
Roehrkasse said yesterday that "the department does not solicit any information about applicants' political affiliations or orientation in the Honors Program application, and hiring decisions were made by the individual components."
Eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year in a plan that originated in the White House to replace prosecutors not considered sufficiently loyal to President Bush and his policies. Much of the uproar over the dismissals has centered on conflicts between the explanations offered by Gonzales and information in e-mails released by the Justice Department. Two U.S. attorneys also have alleged pressure from lawmakers on investigations they were conducting.
The controversy has been kept alive by the newly Democratic Congress's aggressive use of subpoenas and hearings and by Gonzales's revisions of his version of events.
"I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people about my role in this matter," Gonzales says in his prepared remarks. "I do acknowledge however that at times I have been less than precise with my words when discussing the resignations."
Democrats are particularly interested in Gonzales's role in the firings of David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and Carol S. Lam of San Diego, both of whom were involved in public corruption investigations when they were fired. Iglesias has accused two prominent Republican lawmakers of pressuring him to indict Democrats before last year's midterm elections, and officials have acknowledged that Bush and Rove passed along complaints about Iglesias to Gonzales.
Memos and testimony indicate that Gonzales was present at a June 5, 2006, meeting on Lam's record on immigration prosecutions that was preceded by e-mails among Justice officials contemplating her removal. New information also shows that five potential replacements were identified in early 2006 and that a memo on the firings was distributed at a November meeting Gonzales attended. The disclosures appear to contradict statements by Gonzales and his aides.
Last week, White House officials disclosed that millions of e-mails -- including some about the prosecutor firings -- may be missing, in violation of federal record-keeping laws. The RNC also acknowledged that it lost four years' worth of e-mail from Rove, who apparently deleted many of the messages himself. His attorney has said it was an accident.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the contradictions have left the administration "in so much trouble for so little," because U.S. attorneys are political appointees who can be fired at will. "It just shows in some ways the incredible amateurism of this administration," Hess said. "You start by not telling the Congress the truth when the truth can't hurt you, and before you know it, the thread starts to unravel."
One of the clearest examples of the fallout is the increasing impact on U.S. attorney's offices that were not involved in the firings.
In Minnesota, senior managers staged a revolt this month, quitting their management posts rather than working with the new U.S. attorney, a former senior Justice aide. In Montana, U.S. Attorney William W. Mercer has come under criticism from the state's chief federal judge for spending most of his time in Washington as acting associate attorney general. Another U.S. attorney serving double-duty in Washington, Mary Beth Buchanan of Pittsburgh, has faced criticism from a former federal prosecutor who alleges that she has unfairly targeted Democrats for prosecution.
And in Milwaukee, Democrats have lashed out at Biskupic for his prosecution of Georgia Thompson, a state worker convicted in June 2006 of steering a government travel contract to a campaign contributor of Wisconsin's Democratic governor. Thompson, whose case was featured in GOP campaign ads, was released this month after an appeals court overturned her conviction.
Biskupic was also the subject of GOP complaints -- passed from Rove and Bush to Gonzales last fall -- that he was not aggressive in prosecuting voter fraud. Biskupic said last week that "it is my understanding that my name appears on a list . . . questioning my performance and loyalty to the president," a reference to a March 2005 chart compiled by D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff then. Biskupic was not included in later firing lists, officials said.
Biskupic said that he was never informed of any dissatisfaction with his performance, and disputed allegations of political motives for the Thompson case.
"I received no pressure, no communication from the attorney general's people," said Biskupic, a Republican and career federal prosecutor. "We worked it locally and charged it locally, and the end result was the result of local prosecution and not anything in Washington."
Justice officials have acknowledged morale problems in many districts. "We are cognizant there may be concerns, but we're also confident that the men and women in U.S. attorney's offices throughout the country are true professionals focused on doing their jobs free from distraction in Washington," Roehrkasse said.
Staff writers Amy Goldstein and Michael Abramowitz and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.