Senate Hearing on U.S. Attorney Firings

CQ Transcripts Wire
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 1:33 PM

SEN. CHARLES E. SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: I have a brief opening statement. I'm sure Senator Specter does. And then we'll get right into the questions.

First, I want to thank and commend Chairman Leahy for his continued leadership on the critically important issue of the politicization of the Justice Department. This is our committee's fifth hearing in four months focusing on the mass firing of almost 10 percent of our country's top federal prosecutors.

At our last hearing, on April 19th, Attorney General Gonzales attempted to justify the dismissals, explain his role, and put the matter behind him. He failed miserably in that attempt.

Indeed, four weeks later, the dismissals remain unexplained, the attorney general's role is murkier than ever, and with each new revelation, retraction and resignation the issue remains planted on the front pages, hobbling the department's ability to get its important work done.

Let me briefly review some of the developments since the attorney general's ill-fated appearance before this committee on April 19th.

Since April 19th, the former deputy attorney general, who is here today, has contradicted other DOJ officials by testifying that most of the fired U.S. attorneys performed well. We will be hearing more about that today.

Since April 19th, former Missouri U.S. attorney Todd Graves has come forward to say that he was also asked to resign in 2006. That brings the number of dismissals to at least nine and counting, not the eight that Mr. Gonzales testified to.

We'll be hearing more about that situation when the committee considers authorizing Chairman Leahy to subpoena Mr. Graves and his replacement, Bradley Schlozman.

Since April 19th, we've learned that a political corruption case involving Republicans in Arizona may have been slow-walked until after the 2006 election, as the Wall Street Journal has reported.

U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton's unhappiness with the pace of approvals from Washington may have led to his ouster. We'll be hearing more about that if and when the department responds to our request for information and documents.

And since April 19th, we have learned that one of the attorney general's top advisers, Monica Goodling, may have been doing the unthinkable: imposing a political and ideological litmus test in the hiring of career-level prosecutors and department lawyers.

We'll be hearing more about that when Ms. Goodling soon testifies under a grant of immunity.

And, of course, just yesterday, we learned of the latest and most high-ranking casualty of the current imbroglio. Mr. Comey's successor to the number two position at the department, Paul McNulty, announced his resignation.

The attorney general could almost wallpaper his office with the resignation letters of those who he was supposed to be supervising.

SCHUMER: The majority of people in his top circle are now no longer at the Justice Department.

Kyle Sampson, who was responsible for putting together the final firing list, has resigned. Monica Goodling, who helped with the list and served as the department's liaison to the White House, has resigned. Mike Battle, who was ordered to fire seven U.S. attorneys last December 7th, has resigned. And, of course, now the deputy attorney general himself has decided to resign.

I heard today that Attorney General Gonzales was trying to assign blame to Paul McNulty for the firings of the U.S. attorneys, saying that he relied on McNulty's advice. That's ironic, because Paul McNulty came clean with this committee and gave us some valuable information while the attorney general stonewalled.

The attorney general is trying to make Mr. McNulty into the next Scooter Libby, but we all know the buck stops with the attorney general.

Mr. Gonzales said at this hearing -- at that these -- Mr. Gonzales said in this hearing room that he accepts responsibility for the firings. Well, he should live up to his words and not keep pointing the finger today at Mr. McNulty.

There's been a -- there's long been reason to be concerned about Attorney General Gonzales given his close connection with the White House and his apparent misconception of this current role. He seems to many in this country to embody a disrespect for the rule of law and intolerance of independence at the Justice Department.

He's presided over a Justice Department where being a, quote, "loyal Bushie" seems to be more important than being a seasoned professional, where what the White House wants is more important than what the law requires or what prudence dictates.

The current scandal merely crystallizes this problem, namely that loyalty to the White House trumps allegiance to the law, the truth and common sense.

For example, Attorney General Gonzales' former chief of staff has testified that one of the principal reasons the A.G. was upset after listening to Mr. McNulty's testimony on February 6th was that Mr. McNulty had talked too much about the White House's role in appointing Karl Rove's deputy as U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

SCHUMER: Specifically, Mr. Sampson said Gonzales was upset that McNulty had, quote, "put so much emphasis on the White House's role in Griffin being promoted in favor of Cummins," unquote. Gonzales was upset because Mr. McNulty, quote -- said, quote -- Gonzales was upset because Mr. McNulty, quote, "had really brought the White House's role in Griffin into the public sphere."

So it appears that the attorney general was apparently not upset that Mr. McNulty had overstated the White House's role or misstated that role. He was only upset that he had exposed it. And now it appears that Mr. McNulty is gone because of it.

We've only begun to understand the White House's role in the firings and the attorney general's role in accomplishing the White House's bidding. So far, however, we know this at least.

It was the White House that initially raised the prospect of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys.

It was the White House that promoted the idea of removing Bud Cummins in favor of a former aide to Karl Rove.

It was the White House that was upset at the department's belated rejection of a plan to bypass homestate senators in Arkansas to keep Tim Griffin installed indefinitely as U.S. attorney.

It was the White House that had the best opportunity to correct the record of its own involvement in the firing at a March 5th meeting attended by Karl Rove before Mr. Moschella gave incomplete testimony to Congress.

It was the White House that entertained complaints from Republican Party officials about David Iglesias which apparently led to his ouster.

It was the White House that had brought overblown complaints about voter fraud prosecutions to the attention of the Justice Department.

There'll be time for us to hear from those White House witnesses who can shed light on what transpired here, and I hope the day comes soon.

Senator Specter?


I join in the welcome of you, Mr. Comey.

SPECTER: It is ironic in a sense that the former deputy attorney general should be with the Judiciary Committee today, on the same day that we learn of the resignation of the present deputy attorney general.

Earlier today, I wrote to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty congratulating him on his service with the Department of Justice, and wishing him well in his new career.

I did not say in the note to him what I'm about to say, but I think he found it difficult -- really, impossible -- to continue to serve in the Department of Justice as a professional, which Paul McNulty is, because it's embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice today.

We had the attorney general before a hearing. The testimony he gave was hard to understand, incredible in a sense -- to say that he was not involved in discussions and not involved in deliberations, when his three top deputies said he was and the documentary evidence supported that.

It is the decision of Mr. Gonzales as to whether he stays or goes. But it is hard to see how the Department of Justice can function and perform its important duties with Mr. Gonzales remaining where he is. And beyond Mr. Gonzales's decision, it's a matter for the president as to whether the president will retain the attorney general or not.

I think that the operation of the executive branch is a decision for the president. I don't want him telling me how to vote in the Senate on separation of powers, and I'm not going to tell him or make a recommendation to him as to what he ought to do with Mr. Gonzales.

SPECTER: But I think the resignation of Mr. McNulty is another significant step and evidence that a department really cannot function with the continued leadership or lack of leadership of Attorney General Gonzales.

As I view the situation, we really don't know yet what has happened, whether it is politicization or whether it is an ideological bent or what. There is no doubt that the president has the authority to fire all the attorneys general -- pardon me -- in order to fire the attorney general; Freudian slips are sometimes more revealing than the planned statements.

The president does have the authority to replace all of the 93 U.S. attorneys, as President Clinton did when he took office.

And prosecutions for voter fraud are very, very important. When I was district attorney of Philadelphia, I prosecuted both Republicans and Democrats for voter fraud: have a lot of it in Philadelphia.

In 1972, the Democrats and Republicans made a deal in South Philadelphia, a spot where many deals are made, to give the Republicans the top of the ticket -- President Nixon running for reelection -- and the Democrats the rest of the ticket.

A common pleas judge signed in at city hall at 6 a.m. that morning as evidenced by the registry roll, issued injunctions barring all of the McGovern poll watchers from the polling places. He was prosecuted, as were many other top city officials.

So, voter fraud prosecutions are very, very important.

SPECTER: But you can't bring a prosecution unless you have a case.

And now we have to determine if there was chicanery, whether there were efforts at voter prosecutions -- vote fraud prosecutions for investigations when there was no basis for doing so.

It may well be that when we get to the end of the rainbow we will find the explanation may be as simple as outright incompetence -- outright incompetence. To consider firing Peter Fitzgerald, which is what Kyle Sampson testified to, is patently ridiculous.

It is my hope that we will finish these investigations soon, because the continuing investigations are a harm to the -- we have to do our job. But the sooner we finish, the sooner the Department of Justice can return to its work.

If we had a new attorney general and concluded this investigation, made our findings public, it would be very important. Because those U.S. attorneys perform enormously important functions on fighting drugs and crime and terrorism and the administration of both civil and criminal justice in this country.

And I'm glad to see you're here today, Mr. Comey, because I know you can shed some additional light on this important subject.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SCHUMER: Thank you, Senator Specter.

It's now my privilege to introduce our witness today, James B. Comey.

He is almost a man who needs no introduction. He's well known to this committee, which has twice favorably considered his nomination for important offices: first for the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York in 2002, then as deputy attorney general of the United States in 2003.

SCHUMER: Mr. Comey was educated at the College of William and Mary and the University of Chicago Law School. After law school, he served as a law clerk for then-U.S. District Judge John M. Walker Jr. in Manhattan. After that he spent most of the next 20 years as a dedicated public servant in the Justice Department.

Besides serving ably as U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general, Mr. Comey earned a reputation as a hard-nosed prosecutor in a number of high-profile and important cases, including Khobar Towers terrorist bombing case arising out of the June 1996 attack on a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia in which 19 airmen were killed.

Mr. Comey is currently the senior vice president and general counsel of the Lockheed Martin Corporation.

Now, I know it is not easy for you, Mr. Comey, to be here and talk about some of the recent travails at the department which you hold so dear.

I especially appreciate Mr. Comey's coming to testify here without the formality of a subpoena. In order to secure Mr. Comey's presence, I would have moved for consideration of a subpoena by the committee, but I'm glad that wasn't necessary because of your cooperation.

As far as I'm concerned, when the Justice Department lost Jim Comey, it lost a towering figure. And I don't say that because he stands 6'8" tall.

When Jim left the department, we lost a public servant of the first order, a man of unimpeachable integrity, honestly, character and independence.

And now I'd like to administer the oath of office. Would you please rise?

I sorry. I wish we were administering the oath of office.


The oath.

Do you affirm that the testimony you are about to give before the committee will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you, God?

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