'That Strikes at the Core'

Thursday, May 24, 2007

WHEN HE TESTIFIED before a House Judiciary subcommittee this month, former deputy attorney general James B. Comey said he was horrified by reports that the department was examining the political affiliations of lawyers being considered for career positions. "If that was going on, that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is," Mr. Comey said.

Yesterday, promised that her testimony could not be used against her in a criminal prosecution, Monica M. Goodling, former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, admitted to doing exactly that as she screened applicants for prosecutorial positions. "I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions . . . I know I crossed the line," Ms. Goodling said. This was, for the reasons Mr. Comey suggested, a sad moment for anyone who cares about the Justice Department.

It was sad, as well, that so many Republican committee members chose to ignore this ugly fact and heap praise on Ms. Goodling. "I think you have . . . shown people who are here. . . . why people in the Justice Department thought you were worthy of your job," said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.). "Millions of Americans now know a lot more about you, and they're proud to have somebody like you serving in government," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) Violating the law against politicizing the civil service is no grounds for pride.

Ms. Goodling's testimony didn't do much to advance public understanding of the events that landed her there: the firing of eight, or nine, U.S. attorneys. If anything, the story became more muddled, as Ms. Goodling -- having been accused by Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty of failing to be forthcoming in briefing him -- in turn accused Mr. McNulty of giving misleading testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nor did Ms. Goodling make her former boss look any better: She described an "uncomfortable" meeting alone with the attorney general, after the furor over the firings erupted, at which he related his understanding of the facts. "I did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened, and I just thought maybe we shouldn't have that conversation," Ms. Goodling said.

Ms. Goodling presented herself, despite her lofty title as White House liaison, as a little fish who had never spoken in that role to political strategist Karl Rove or counsel Harriet E. Miers about the firings. "I can't give you the whole White House story," Ms. Goodling told the committee. Lawmakers need to hear from those who can.

As we have said, the president is entitled to have U.S. attorneys who reflect his law enforcement priorities. So far, no evidence has emerged to support the allegations that some of the prosecutors -- notably, U.S. Attorney Carol C. Lam in San Diego -- were fired for pursuing public corruption cases against Republicans. At the same time, the firing of David C. Iglesias, U.S. attorney for New Mexico, after improper phone calls from Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) about a pending case is highly suspicious, and Mr. Iglesias's last-minute appearance on the firing list remains unexplained. In addition, a thread that runs through a number of the firings has to do with the prosecutors' alleged failure to pursue cases of voter fraud.

In pushing prosecutors to investigate voter fraud and dumping ones who didn't perform, was the White House pursuing a legitimate prosecutorial priority or an avenue of partisan gain? The complaints from lawmakers that President Bush passed on to Mr. Gonzales and the similar involvement of Mr. Rove contain more than a whiff of political self-interest. That is a legitimate and important area for congressional inquiry, and it is looking increasingly as if the answers are to be found at the White House.

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