By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 11, 2007
House Republicans rallied around embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday during intense questioning by Democrats, even as revelations emerged about attempts to fire U.S. attorneys singled out for criticism by White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Appearing more confident as he has kept his job and the support of President Bush, Gonzales rebuffed questions by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and repeated his defense of the dismissals as warranted, if poorly handled.
Gonzales asserted that the January 2006 removal of a U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., revealed in media reports yesterday was not part of the same process that led to the firings of the other prosecutors. He also said he had "no basis to believe" that the dismissal of Todd P. Graves was connected to GOP unhappiness over his handling of voter-fraud cases.
"It's always been my understanding that this focus has always been on the eight United States attorneys," Gonzales testified, adding later: "As part of this review process . . . these were the individuals that were identified."
New details emerged yesterday about the extent of Rove's involvement in pressing complaints about the U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic, and in urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation there before last November's elections.
Gonzales's senior aides came closer than previously known to firing Biskupic, who had been identified by Rove as weak on prosecuting voter fraud, according to interviews conducted by congressional staff and disclosed yesterday.
But D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff, told investigators that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty argued against the firing, saying it would "not be a wise thing to do politically" and could raise "the ire" of Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who had recommended Biskupic and was then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
A separate interview with Justice aide Matthew Friedrich showed that Rove's office sent a packet of voter-fraud allegations about Milwaukee compiled by Republican activists to Gonzales's office last October, three weeks before the elections, with a request to investigate.
The packet from Rove came to Friedrich around the same time the senior Bush adviser also complained to Gonzales about the lack of voter-fraud cases against liberal get-out-the-vote groups in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and New Mexico.
Friedrich, Gonzales's senior counselor, told congressional investigators last week that the packet immediately set off alarm bells because forwarding it to criminal investigators would violate strict Justice rules that limit the pursuit of voter-related investigations close to an election. Friedrich said he did nothing with the material.
Both Biskupic and Sensenbrenner said yesterday that they never talked to each other about individual cases or about voter-fraud matters, and Biskupic said he did not know that his job was in jeopardy.
Biskupic also played down the voter-fraud complaints, saying that he and a local Democratic prosecutor jointly investigated such allegations in 2005 and found only scattered evidence of wrongdoing. "We tried to address them in a serious and detailed way, but in a way that did not impact any election," he said. "I think we did that."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement that "it's no secret that we and others had long-standing concerns about voter fraud in a number of places," including Milwaukee. Fratto said Democrats' "breathless reaction to any mention of Karl Rove is more than a little bit weird."
Friedrich also provided further details about the extent of GOP efforts to remove then-U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, the target of complaints from Rove, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and New Mexico Republican Party officials.
Friedrich told investigators that he met twice last year with New Mexico Republicans who had complaints about Iglesias and his handling of a criminal investigation of Democrats. They made similar complaints to Rove, Domenici and Monica M. Goodling, a Gonzales aide who has since resigned, Friedrich said. Iglesias was later fired.
From the opening moments of yesterday's hearing, House Judiciary Republicans sought to counter almost every Democratic accusation against Gonzales, providing a stark contrast with Senate Republicans, who gave the attorney general a chilly reception three weeks ago. At that hearing on April 19, one of the Senate Judiciary Committee's most conservative members, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), called on the attorney general to resign. That demand was heard only from Democrats yesterday.
GOP members repeatedly accused Democrats of searching, but failing to find, scandal in the appointment and removal of U.S. attorneys. "We're acting around this place like U.S. attorneys are the product of the Immaculate Conception, and once they've been created that cannot be undone," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).
Republicans also forced Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) to apologize for calling one Republican a "target" of a federal inquiry. Media reports about Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) have said that he is under scrutiny over his ties to a lobbying firm. In Justice Department nomenclature, the target of a probe is in imminent danger of being indicted.
Some Republicans highlighted investigations of Democrats to paint a broader picture of corruption. Sensenbrenner demanded that Gonzales indict Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) in a bribery investigation that has involved legal wrangling over evidence. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) protested the fact that Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who is also under FBI investigation, is in charge of the Appropriations Committee's panel on Justice Department funding.
Democrats sought to keep the focus on the U.S. attorney firings, expressing exasperation at Gonzales's frequent referrals to Sampson, who coordinated the dismissals with the White House. "You'll have to talk to Mr. Sampson about the list," Gonzales said at one point.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) joined other Democrats in challenging Gonzales's ability to lead the Justice Department under a cloud of scandal. "If most people believe that the United States attorney general has not told the truth about why these U.S. attorneys were fired, how can they have confidence in your job?" Nadler asked.
"I don't believe that's an accurate statement," Gonzales said. "And what I'm trying to do in appearances like this is to set the record straight."
Graves said in an interview Wednesday that he was asked to leave his post as U.S. attorney in January 2006 -- the same month that his name appeared on a firing list compiled by Sampson. The removal makes Graves the ninth U.S. attorney known to have been dismissed last year and conflicts with testimony from Gonzales and others that the effort was limited to eight prosecutors.
Graves said he was told simply that he should resign to "give another person a chance." He said he did not oppose the department's request, because he had been planning to return to private practice.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.