Gonzales Says He Didn't Know Why Two Were Fired
Friday, April 20, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified yesterday that when he approved the firings of seven U.S. attorneys on a single day late last year he did not know why two of the prosecutors were on the list.
Gonzales, summoned to Capitol Hill to clarify the murky rationale for the dismissals, said he was not surprised by the names of five prosecutors presented to him by his then-chief of staff. He said he had already heard "concerns" about their work from White House officials, local Republicans and Justice Department aides.
The attorney general acknowledged, however, that "I didn't have an independent basis or recollection" about the job performance of Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel G. Bogden. And asked why he had agreed to fire Margaret M. Chiara, the U.S. attorney for western Michigan, Gonzales replied: "Quite candidly . . . I don't recall the reason why I accepted" staff advice on her dismissal. Only after the fact, he testified, did he learn "it was a question of . . . poor-management issues."
Gonzales's remarks were his first full public account of the Dec. 7 firings since they erupted into a furor that has persisted for months and has imperiled his job. Under intense grilling by senators of both parties, Gonzales furnished his most detailed description to date of the reason each person was fired.
At the same time, his testimony conflicted with his earlier explanations in at least one case, and it underscored the patchwork of political and policy considerations that led to the dismissals.
Throughout the hours of testimony, Democratic and several GOP committee members alike groused that Gonzales was still not entirely leveling with them.
"Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a frequent Bush administration ally. "[I]t's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them."
"Sir, I respectfully disagree with that," Gonzales replied, his brow furrowed deeply. "I really do." He characterized the dismissals as an outgrowth of what he termed a "perfectly appropriate" review "to see where we could make changes to benefit the performance of the Department of Justice."
His most marked deviation yesterday from an earlier explanation involved an eighth U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins of eastern Arkansas, who was told by Justice officials last June that he would have to resign. He was to be replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, an aide to Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser.
For the past two months, Justice officials have seesawed publicly about why Cummins was removed. In early February, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, testifying before the same committee at which Gonzales appeared yesterday, said the Arkansas prosecutor had done a satisfactory job and was removed only to make room for Griffin.
A month later, documents and a Justice spokesman offered a contradictory explanation. Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for Gonzales, said McNulty's testimony had "upset" the attorney general, who "believed Bud Cummins's removal involved performance considerations."
Yesterday, Gonzales went back to the original explanation, saying that Cummins "was asked to resign because there was another well-qualified individual that the White House wanted to put in place there, that we supported." Asked whether it was accurate that Cummins had no job-performance problems, Gonzales replied: "I would say that's a fair statement."
Gonzales made clear that other prosecutors were selected for dismissal because Justice officials regarded them as too autonomous. He said Paul K. Charlton, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, had used "poor judgment" in resisting a decision by officials in Justice's Washington headquarters to pursue the death penalty in one case.
And Gonzales testified that when he accepted a recommendation to fire John McKay, the chief federal prosecutor for western Washington, he recalled "there being serious concerns about his judgment." After McKay was fired, Gonzales said, he learned from documents that those concerns stemmed from a letter critical of a department information-sharing project that McKay had drafted and circulated for signatures among fellow U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales said that the letter angered the deputy attorney general, and that McKay's colleagues would not have signed it if they "had known that the deputy attorney general would not welcome the letter."
In the case of Chiara -- the Michigan prosecutor who, internal documents have shown, strenuously protested her dismissal -- Gonzales said he learned after her firing that she had drawn complaints of poor management and a lack of confidence among assistant prosecutors who worked for her.
Still, the attorney general yesterday described the complaints only in broad terms. "We had to send someone from main Justice," he said, "to help mediate some kind of personnel dispute."