By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 3, 2007
The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's former White House liaison illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring career federal prosecutors, officials said yesterday.
The allegations against Monica M. Goodling represent a potential violation of federal law and signal that a joint probe begun in March by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility has expanded beyond the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
The revelations about Goodling were among several developments yesterday in connection with the firings, including a new subpoena seeking presidential adviser Karl Rove's e-mails and new accusations from two of the dismissed U.S. attorneys.
In newly released statements, the two alleged that they were threatened by Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty's chief of staff immediately before Gonzales testified in the Senate in January.
Paul K. Charlton of Phoenix and John McKay of Seattle said that Michael J. Elston called them on Jan. 17 and offered an implicit agreement of Gonzales's silence in exchange for their continuing not to publicly discuss their removals. Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee the next day and refused to provide details about the firings.
"My handwritten and dated notes of this call reflect that I believed Mr. Elston's tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal," McKay wrote in response to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.
Elston's attorney, Robert N. Driscoll, said the calls were to reassure the two prosecutors that Gonzales did not plan to reveal their dismissals, which were not public then.
"Mike didn't intend to intimidate anybody," Driscoll said.
Two other fired prosecutors complained pointedly about Elston, according to the statements released yesterday.
Carol C. Lam of San Diego wrote that Elston "erroneously accused me of 'leaking' my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys."
Bud Cummins of Little Rock repeated his account of a Feb. 20 phone call with Elston, two days after Cummins was quoted in a newspaper article. Cummins wrote that Elston "essentially said that if the controversy continued, then some of the USAs would have to be 'thrown under the bus.' " Elston has previously described Cummins's reaction as the product of a misunderstanding.
The firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year -- seven on them on one day -- sparked a furor in Congress as Gonzales and other Justice officials offered shifting explanations for the move. McKay and another prosecutor, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, also have alleged improper contacts from GOP lawmakers about ongoing criminal investigations, causing some Democrats to allege that some of the prosecutors were dismissed for political reasons.
Lawmakers in both parties have called for Gonzales's resignation, but President Bush has said Gonzales will remain in his post.
Former deputy attorney general James B. Comey is scheduled to testify today before the House Judiciary panel.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said that as part of her job, Goodling reviewed applications for entry-level prosecutor positions in some offices headed by interim or acting U.S. attorneys. In those cases, Boyd said, Goodling "may have taken prohibited considerations into account" and "whether or not the allegation is true is currently the subject of the ongoing" investigation by the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Boyd noted that it is against federal law and internal Justice policies to consider political affiliation in hiring for nonpolitical jobs. The allegation against Goodling was referred to investigators several weeks ago by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg of Alexandria, who was serving temporarily as Gonzales's chief of staff.
The investigation of Goodling complicates efforts by the House Judiciary Committee to offer her immunity in exchange for testimony. Goodling quit as Gonzales's senior counselor last month and has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions from Congress about the prosecutor firings.
Goodling's attorney, John M. Dowd, said yesterday that Goodling would agree to testify under such a deal. But the Justice Department must approve the immunity and certify that the move would not interfere with current or possible criminal prosecutions.
Dowd said Goodling would demand similar immunity before Justice investigators can interview her.
Also yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to Gonzales seeking all of Rove's e-mails in Justice Department custody related to the firings. They include e-mails turned over to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald as part of his investigation of the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. The subpoena is the second to be formally served on Gonzales in the probe of the prosecutor dismissals.
The subpoena to Gonzales from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) demands copies of any e-mails sent by Rove -- through either the White House or the Republican National Committee -- related to the appointment, performance or replacement of U.S. attorneys and career or political personnel at Justice.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said last month that a "forensics consultant" would try to find any of Rove's lost e-mails. Since then, the RNC has hired a consultant, but the White House has not said whether any of Rove's e-mails through the RNC have been located.
Leahy's letter to Gonzales yesterday noted published claims by Rove attorney Robert Luskin that Rove's laptop computer's hard drive was turned over to Fitzgerald in 2004 for the probe of the Plame case.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.