By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 24, 2007
A former senior aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales leveled serious new accusations against him and his deputy yesterday, describing an "uncomfortable" attempt by Gonzales to discuss the firings of U.S. attorneys as Congress and the Justice Department were intensifying their investigations of the issue.
Monica M. Goodling, who resigned last month as Gonzales's senior counselor and White House liaison, also told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday that she "crossed the line" by using political criteria in hiring a wide array of career professionals at Justice, including looking up political donations by some applicants.
In a day-long hearing that afforded her immunity from prosecution, Goodling minimized her role in the controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year and joined a long line of Justice officials who say they were not responsible for adding names to the lists of those to be dismissed.
But Goodling's appearance also opened broad new avenues of inquiry for congressional Democrats, who think Gonzales has presided over intensifying political meddling at the Justice Department. It also provided fresh evidence of the deepening rifts between current and former Justice officials, who have increasingly turned on one another since the prosecutor firings.
Goodling, 33, alleged that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty was "not fully candid" with Congress about his knowledge of White House involvement in the firings. McNulty, who tendered his resignation last week, disputed that.
Under intensive questioning from Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), Goodling also described a mid-March meeting with Gonzales that began as a discussion of her future at Justice but ended with talk about the U.S. attorneys' firings.
"Let me tell you what I can remember," he said, according to her account.
"He laid out for me his general recollection . . . of some of the process" of the firings and then asked "if I had any reaction to his iteration," Goodling said.
She said the conversation made her "a little uncomfortable" because she knew that she, Gonzales and others would be asked to testify before Congress.
"Do you think, Ms. Goodling, the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?" Davis asked.
Goodling paused, then said: "No . . . I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having, and so I just -- just didn't say anything."
She added that she thought Gonzales was only "being kind."
Gonzales told the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month that he had not discussed the details of the firings with other potential witnesses, "in order to preserve the integrity" of ongoing investigations by Congress and by the Justice Department.
The meeting occurred after the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility launched an investigation into the firings on March 14, officials said. Later that month, the OPR was joined by the department's inspector general.
"The attorney general has never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness in this matter, including Ms. Goodling," spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. "The statements made by the attorney general during this meeting were intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life."
Goodling alleged that McNulty provided Congress with "incomplete or inaccurate" testimony on several points in February despite being briefed about the issues beforehand. She also alleged that McNulty barred her from attending a closed-door Senate briefing because he feared that her presence would cause lawmakers to question whether the White House was involved in the firings.
"Despite my and others' best effort, the deputy's public testimony was incomplete or inaccurate in a number of respects," Goodling said. "I believe the deputy was not fully candid about his knowledge of White House involvement in the replacement decision."
McNulty, who will leave Justice this summer, disputed the allegations in a statement: "I testified truthfully at the Feb. 6, 2007, hearing based on what I knew at that time. Ms. Goodling's characterization of my testimony is wrong and not supported by the extensive record of documents and testimony already provided to Congress."
McNulty and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William E. Moschella have told lawmakers they did not receive adequate information from Goodling, who participated in briefings before they each testified to Congress.
Goodling's testimony about hiring practices amounts to a dramatic public admission that she and other Justice aides routinely used potentially illegal criteria in deciding whom to hire as career prosecutors, immigration judges and those in other nonpolitical government jobs.
"I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions and may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions," she testified. "I regret these mistakes."
Under questioning from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Goodling repeatedly declined to estimate how many times she had considered political affiliations in career hiring decisions. Johnson finally asked whether it was more or fewer than 50 cases.
"I don't think that I could have done it more than 50 times, but I don't know," she replied.
Goodling, a former opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee, revealed that prospective hires for the immigration courts, which are administered by Justice, were among those who may have been subjected to political litmus tests.
She said that D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff, had told her she did not have to abide by restrictions on weighing political affiliations in those positions. The department's Civil Division later raised objections and froze hiring for the immigration courts in December, she said.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said yesterday that reforms were implemented and hiring has resumed.
In addition to the inquiry into the prosecutor firings, the department's inspector general and professional responsibility offices have begun to investigate whether Goodling may have broken federal laws or internal rules by weighing political affiliations in career hiring decisions.
Goodling offered a few new details about some of the U.S. attorneys who were fired, saying that she had recommended removing Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul K. Charlton of Arizona in January 2006. They were included on a draft list at that time but were not passed on to the White House as candidates for firing until later in the year.
House Republicans stood steadfastly behind Goodling, even as she repeatedly apologized for weighing political affiliation.
"There not only is no evidence of wrongdoing, but there is no allegation of any wrongdoing on your part," Rep. Steve King (Iowa) told her.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.