By Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Even as he came under renewed political pressure in Washington this week, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales faced sharp criticism from many of his own U.S. attorneys at a private meeting in San Antonio, prosecutors who were there said.
At an executive session Wednesday during the Justice Department's annual U.S. attorneys conference, Gonzales met with most of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys to apologize for the controversy over the firings of nine prosecutors last year and to attempt to shore up sagging morale.
More than a dozen U.S. attorneys spoke during the morning session, most of them expressing concern to Gonzales about the scandal's impact on their own offices and the overall image of the department, several participants said.
"People were very plainspoken," said one U.S. attorney, who along with others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was private. "The overwhelming majority of the comments were about the controversy and how people are still not happy in the way things were going."
The meeting underscored the challenge facing the embattled attorney general, who is seeking to mend relations with thousands of his own employees even as he fends off an increasing number of calls from Congress for his resignation over the way he has handled the prosecutor dismissals.
Senate Democrats plan to hold a vote of no confidence in Gonzales next week -- a move White House spokesman Tony Fratto yesterday called "a political stunt." Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded that "just about everyone in America has lost confidence in" Gonzales. But Gonzales has retained President Bush's support.
Nine prosecutors were fired last year, and 21 others were included on lists of candidates considered for dismissal as part of an effort by Justice officials and the White House to remove U.S. attorneys based in part on whether they were loyal to the administration and its policies. Two prosecutors have alleged that the firings came after improper contact by GOP lawmakers or staffers about criminal investigations.
Many of the remaining prosecutors have said they are angry at the way their colleagues were treated, citing statements by Gonzales and other Justice officials that most of those dismissed were fired for performance issues.
One U.S. attorney complained to Gonzales on Wednesday that the fired prosecutors were not given "even the minimum professional treatment," said another prosecutor who recounted the comments.
Several participants said that the San Antonio meeting was polite but that most of those who spoke made clear that there was a great deal of unhappiness in their ranks. No one suggested or even hinted at the prospect of Gonzales's resignation, they said.
Several prosecutors noted a difference in attitude between the veteran Bush administration U.S. attorneys -- many of whom knew the fired prosecutors -- and more recent arrivals who generally focused on moving past the scandal.
"There is no secret that a lot of us are still pretty upset by this, and at the impact it's having on an institution we love," one U.S. attorney said. "At the same time, there is a desire to get on with our work."
Wednesday's session came two days after Gonzales's deputy, Paul J. McNulty, announced he would resign this summer, but before revelations that a total of 30 U.S. attorneys were identified as candidates for dismissal on internal Justice documents beginning in early 2005.
The meeting was one of a series of attempts by Gonzales to placate his chief federal prosecutors, particularly 40 or so veterans who have been in office since the beginning of the Bush administration. The session followed a series of smaller group meetings with U.S. attorneys around the country, including at least two that featured blunt face-to-face criticism of the attorney general.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse called the meetings "personal, valuable and frank."
"The attorney general accepted responsibility for the missteps that have helped to fuel the controversy," Roehrkasse said. ". . . He told them he expected all of them to continue to do their jobs in the way they deem best and without any improper interference from anyone."