Justice Dept.'s No. 2 to Resign

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, shown speaking last month, said his decision to step down was not related to the furor over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, shown speaking last month, said his decision to step down was not related to the furor over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty announced his resignation yesterday after 18 months on the job, becoming the fourth senior Justice Department official to quit amid the controversy surrounding the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

In a one-page letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, McNulty said he will leave his post in late summer because of the "financial realities" brought on by "college-age children and two decades of public service."

McNulty, 49, said in an interview that the political tumult over the prosecutor dismissals -- including his role in providing inaccurate information to Congress -- did not play a part in his decision. He said he has not lined up a job but is considering his options.

"It's been a big issue for the past few months, but the timing of this is really about other things," McNulty said. He said he timed the announcement to coincide with a prosecutor conference in San Antonio, which he attended, and sought to leave enough time for an orderly transition before his departure.

"I've been completely blessed with a wonderful career, and I'm hopeful that my efforts over the last 20-plus years will be viewed by folks in the right way and that things will be put into context," he said.

Nine U.S. attorneys were forced to resign last year, including seven on one day in December, as part of a two-year effort by senior White House and Justice Department officials to remove prosecutors based in part on their perceived disloyalty to Bush administration policies.

The dismissals have caused an uproar among Democrats and some Republicans in Congress and have led to a Justice Department inquiry into possible criminal wrongdoing by a former aide to Gonzales.

McNulty began work as Gonzales's deputy in November 2005. McNulty became a central figure in the furor after he told the Senate Judiciary Committee in February that the White House played only a marginal role in the dismissals -- a characterization that conflicted with documents later released by Justice and with subsequent testimony.

He also said most of the prosecutors were fired for "performance-related" reasons. That statement angered many of the former U.S. attorneys, most of whom had sterling evaluations and had remained largely silent about their departures.

The fallout has led to a deepening rift between Gonzales, who was upset by the testimony about former U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, and McNulty, whose supporters believe he has been tarred by missteps and possible wrongdoing by former Gonzales aides, according to numerous Justice officials. McNulty has told congressional investigators that D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, and Monica M. Goodling, then the department's White House liaison, did not brief him fully before his testimony.

Sampson and Goodling have resigned. Michael A. Battle, the senior Justice official who carried out the prosecutor firings, has also quit, though he and Justice officials said his departure had been planned for some time.

Gonzales, who turned to McNulty after an earlier choice dropped out under pressure, said in a statement yesterday that he has been "a dynamic and thoughtful leader" and "effective manager of day-to-day operations." Gonzales cited his efforts at overseeing investigations into corporate and taxpayer fraud.

McNulty's pending departure may add to the tumult at the upper reaches of the Justice Department, where only Gonzales and a handful of others involved in the prosecutor dismissals remain. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and other top Democrats have indicated that they will not confirm any senior Justice nominees until they receive e-mails they have demanded from the White House and are allowed to conduct interviews about the firings.

"Mr. McNulty's resignation is a sign that top-level administration at the Justice Department may be crumbling under the pressure of ongoing revelations, and what is yet to be disclosed," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). "With this news and as we press on with our investigation, we look forward to his cooperation."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led the call in Congress for Gonzales to resign, said that McNulty "at least tried to level with the committee," whereas Gonzales, "who stonewalled the committee, is still in charge."

McNulty, a Pittsburgh native, has worked for 22 of the past 24 years on Capitol Hill or in the executive branch, getting his start in 1983 as a Democrat and counsel to the House ethics committee. McNulty eventually became a Republican and served as chief counsel and communications director for House impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton.

He helped shepherd John D. Ashcroft through a contentious confirmation as attorney general in 2001 and was appointed the U.S. attorney in Alexandria three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. McNulty, who had no trial experience, presided over a dramatic expansion of that office over the next four years before taking over as Gonzales's second-in-command.

During his Feb. 6 testimony, McNulty strongly defended the firings of the U.S. attorneys and said allegations that the department was being politicized were "like a knife in my heart."

Although McNulty and his aides had hoped to tamp down the furor, his testimony served only to escalate it, in large part because most of the departing prosecutors felt that their reputations had been publicly disparaged. A cascade of revelations followed, from the White House's central role to two prosecutors' allegations of improper contact by GOP lawmakers or their staff.

Some fired prosecutors have accused McNulty's chief of staff, Michael J. Elston, of later making phone calls that they found threatening. Elston has denied wrongdoing.

In a private interview with congressional aides on April 27, McNulty said he was surprised to learn about plans for the dismissals in late October and did not know why certain individuals were chosen. Sampson testified that the firings were part of a consensus process that included McNulty.

Goodling has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify, citing McNulty's allegation that she did not fully brief him. A federal judge last week cleared the way for her to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which has granted her limited immunity from prosecution.

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane and Washington Post staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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