By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007 5:44 PM
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told a Senate panel today that the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys was "flawed," but he continued to insist that there was "nothing improper" about the removals, and he rebuffed suggestions that he resign.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the nation's chief law enforcement officer faced tough, skeptical questioning from both Democratic and Republican senators, as he argued that he had "limited involvement" in the process that led to the firings but defended them nonetheless.
One Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, pointedly told Gonzales that the dismissals have been handled "in a very incompetent manner," tarnishing the reputations of the prosecutors and damaging public confidence in the Justice Department.
"I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation," Coburn said. Gonzales rejected the idea, saying he was committed to correcting his mistakes.
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also urged Gonzales to step down "for the good of the department and the good of the country."
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), told the embattled attorney general that "your credibility has been significantly impaired" as a result of the hearing, but he stopped short of calling on him to resign.
Earlier, Gonzales said he would quit only if he thought he could no longer be effective.
"I have admitted mistakes in managing this issue, but the department as a general matter has not been mismanaged," he said. "We've done great things."
Saying he was working hard to improve morale at Justice in the wake of the controversy, he told the committee, "The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign. . . ." But he added, "I believe I can continue to be effective as the attorney general of the United States," and he told senators, "I don't have anything to hide."
In a statement after the hearing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush
"was pleased with the attorney general's testimony today" and continues to have "full confidence" in him.
"After hours of testimony in which he answered all of the senators' questions and provided thousands of pages of documents, he again showed that nothing improper occurred," Perino said. "He admitted the matter could have been handled much better, and he apologized for the disruption to the lives of the U.S. attorneys involved, as well as for the lack of clarity in his initial responses." She said Bush "appreciates the work he is doing at the Department of Justice to help keep our citizens safe from terrorists, our children safe from predators, our government safe from corruption, and our streets free from gang violence."
However, Democrats and some Republicans on the committee expressed dissatisfaction with Gonzales's performance, noting that he responded to dozens of questions by saying he could not recall or did not know the answers.
Schumer told reporters after the hearing that despite hours of testimony from Gonzales and other witnesses, the committee still has not received answers on who originally targeted the U.S. attorneys for dismissal and why. He said the refusal to say where the names came from suggests that the list originated "in the White House."
"Until there is a clear, concise explanation" for each of the firings, he said, "the cloud over this that they were fired for untoward political reasons is going to stay."
Schumer also said it was important for the committee now to hear from Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, and his former counsel, Harriet E. Miers. The committee has authorized subpoenas for them, but the White House has said it will allow them to appear only in private under tight restrictions, including no oath-taking and no transcript of the proceedings. The impasse has yet to be resolved.
Under questioning, Gonzales said that before the dismissals, he discussed issues related to the performance of U.S. attorneys with Bush and Rove. He said the conversations were about pursuing election fraud in three jurisdictions, one of which -- New Mexico -- was the territory of the U.S. attorney whose firing has been among the most controversial.
Senators made it clear they believe Gonzales's job is on the line. Specter, the committee's former chairman, called today's session a "reconfirmation hearing."
Although the panel has no power to actually reconsider the February 2005 confirmation of Gonzales, a longtime Bush confidant from Texas who became the nation's first Hispanic attorney general, his appearance before the committee was viewed as crucial to his efforts to fend off calls for his resignation and shore up support from GOP lawmakers.
In his opening statement, Gonzales said the eight U.S. attorneys who were fired last year "deserved better" from him and the Justice Department.
"I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle," Gonzales said. "I accept full responsibility for this."
He acknowledged that he should have been "more precise" in discussing the firings and said that "my misstatements were my mistakes." But he said, "I never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people."
Gonzales added: "While the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. There is nothing improper in making a change for poor management, policy differences or questionable judgment, or simply to have another qualified individual serve."
He said it would be "improper" to remove a U.S. attorney to interfere with a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. "I did not do that," he said. "I would never do that. Nor do I believe that anyone else in the department advocated the removal of a U.S. attorney for such a purpose."
While the process of dismissing the U.S. attorneys "was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been," Gonzales said, "my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand."
Pressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other senators on who had originally selected the U.S. attorneys for dismissal, Gonzales would not name anyone in particular. He said his chief of staff gathered the names by speaking with "senior leaders of the department" and gave him a "consensus recommendation" on the prosecutors to be fired.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, opened the hearing by declaring that the Justice Department under Gonzales "is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history." He said he fears that the department "may be losing its way."
"The Department of Justice should never be reduced to another political arm of the White House -- this White House or any White House," Leahy said. He said the firings have not been adequately explained, "and there is mounting evidence of improper considerations and actions resulting in the dismissals."
Specter said the purpose of the hearing is to determine the committee's judgment as to whether Gonzales should continue to be attorney general. He told Gonzales he bears a "heavy burden of proof" to reestablish his credibility, justify the replacement of the U.S. attorneys and demonstrate his ability to continue leading the Justice Department.
The eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year in accordance with a plan that originated in the White House to replace federal prosecutors who were not considered sufficiently loyal to Bush and his policies. Much of the political furor over the dismissals has revolved around conflicts between the explanations offered by Gonzales and information in e-mails released by the Justice Department. Two U.S. attorneys also have alleged that they came under pressure from Republican lawmakers over investigations they were conducting.
Democrats have focused on Gonzales's role in the firings of two U.S. attorneys in particular: David C. Iglesias of New Mexico and Carol S. Lam of San Diego. Both were involved in public corruption investigations when they were fired.
Iglesias has accused two prominent Republican legislators 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.
Adding to the controversy was the disclosure last week that millions of e-mails -- including some about the firings of the U.S. attorneys -- may be missing, in violation of federal record-keeping laws. The disclosure was first made by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an accountability advocacy group. The Republican National Committee has 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 this was done by accident.
At today's hearing, Leahy pressed Gonzales about previous testimony by his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, that Rove had complained to him about Iglesias and two other U.S. attorneys who allegedly were not being aggressive enough in pursuing vote-fraud cases.
Gonzales confirmed that in the fall of 2006 Rove "mentioned to me concerns that he had heard about pursuing voter fraud, election fraud, in three jurisdictions: New Mexico, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."
He said Iglesias was added to the list of U.S. attorneys to be dismissed sometime between Oct. 17 and Dec. 15, 2006. He said he was "not responsible for compiling that list," but that he was "not surprised" that Iglesias was added to it "because I had heard concerns about the performance of Mr. Iglesias" from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and from Rove.
Gonzales said that at a meeting on Oct. 11, 2006, Bush himself "relayed to me similar concerns about pursuing election fraud in three jurisdictions."
Seven of the eight dismissed prosecutors were fired on one day, Dec. 7, 2006: Iglesias in New Mexico, Lam in San Diego, Paul K. Charlton in Phoenix, John McKay in Seattle, Daniel G. Bogden in Las Vegas, Margaret Chiara in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Kevin V. Ryan in San Francisco. Another prosecutor, Bud Cummins, was fired earlier to make way for the appointment of a former aide to Rove as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark.
Under questioning, Gonzales said that at the time he signed off on the firings, he did not know the reasons for dismissing two of the prosecutors -- Bogden and Chiara -- but that he accepted the recommendations of senior department staffers in their cases.
Gonzales said he had "no recollection" of a key meeting on Nov. 27, 2006, in which, his former chief of staff has testified, the impending dismissals were discussed in some detail. Sampson's testimony about that meeting contradicted Gonzales's initial assertions -- at a March 13 news conference -- that he had not been involved in any discussions or deliberations about the firings and had not attended meetings or seen memos about the matter.
In a testy exchange with Specter, Gonzales apparently became irritated when the senator alluded to his weeks of preparation for today's hearing. "I prepare for all my hearings," the attorney general interjected.
"Do you prepare for all your press conferences?" Specter shot back.
"I already conceded that I misspoke at that press conference," Gonzales replied.
Gonzales also said that he supported a change in federal law in November 2005 that gave him the ability to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The change was inserted into a reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act without debate and apparently without the knowledge of many lawmakers.
Gonzales said he did not support the provision with the intention to avoid Senate involvement in confirming U.S. attorneys but to take interim appointments out of the hands of federal judges when there were vacancies.
He insisted that he "never liked the idea" of using the provision to bypass the Senate and that "quite frankly I thought it was a dumb idea."
Gonzales came under sharp questioning on this point from Schumer, who pointed to other testimony indicating that he did not initially reject a plan to use the provision in precisely that way.
The attorney general said he could not say who came up with the idea of changing the law in the first place. Congress has since voted to repeal the provision.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) whether the final decision to fire the U.S. attorneys was based more on "trust" of his aides' recommendations than on "knowledge" of their performance, Gonzales said, "I think that's a fair assessment."
Calling the rationales for the dismissals mostly "a stretch," Graham said it was clear to him that some of the fired prosecutors "just had personality conflicts" with Bush administration officials and that the Justice Department "made up reasons to fire them." Gonzales responded, "I respectfully disagree with that."
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.