By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007
The Justice Department is investigating whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales sought to improperly influence the testimony of a departing senior aide, two of its senior officials said yesterday, adding a new dimension to the troubles already besetting the nation's chief law enforcement official.
The Justice Department officials, in a letter released yesterday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, said their inquiry into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys includes an examination of a meeting Gonzales held in mid-March with his then-aide Monica M. Goodling, who testified last month that the attorney general's comments during the session made her feel "a little uncomfortable."
The topic of discussion at the meeting was what had happened in the months leading up to firings of the U.S. attorneys, and Gonzales recounted his recollection of events before asking for her reaction, according to Goodling's congressional testimony in May. She said Gonzales's comments discomfited her because both Congress and the Justice Department had already launched investigations of the dismissals.
Goodling's account attracted attention partly because Gonzales had told Congress that he could not remember numerous details about the prosecutors' dismissals because he had purposely avoided discussing the issue with other potential "fact witnesses."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse repeated yesterday a previous statement by Gonzales that the attorney general never sought to influence Goodling's testimony. A White House spokesman also reiterated that President Bush "fully supports the attorney general," who this week was the target of an unsuccessful no-confidence vote organized by Senate Democrats.
The announcement that Gonzales's conduct would be examined came from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel of the Office of Professional Responsibility. "This is to confirm that the scope of our investigation does include this matter," Fine and Jarrett said in a letter to Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Fine has the authority to refer cases for possible criminal prosecution if warranted, and both he and Jarrett can recommend disciplinary action for violations of internal ethics guidelines or other rules of professional conduct.
The revelation further expands the publicly known contours of the Justice Department's internal investigation, which is examining the removal of the prosecutors and whether any laws or policies were violated in the hiring of career prosecutors, immigration judges and others.
Gonzales and many of his senior aides have recused themselves from the matter, but some Democratic congressional aides and legal experts said the existence of the inquiry strengthens the argument that an outside prosecutor should be appointed to investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the prosecutor firings.
"It's remarkable that he's under investigation and that he's still attorney general," said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law. "At some point, it can no longer be done internally. This cannot be done by Gonzales's subordinates."
In her May 23 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Goodling testified that the backdrop of her conversation with the attorney general was her prospective decision on whether to transfer to another job or leave the department. "Let me tell you what I can remember," Gonzales said, according to her account. He then asked whether Goodling "had any reaction to his iteration," she said.
Goodling testified that the conversation made her "a little uncomfortable" because of ongoing investigations into the issue -- including one begun several days earlier by the OPR. "I didn't know that it was maybe appropriate for us to talk about that at that point, and so I just didn't," Goodling said. "As far as I can remember, I just didn't respond."
Roehrkasse said yesterday that "the statements made by the attorney general during this meeting were intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life. Because this matter is under investigation, we cannot comment any further."
Gonzales said in testimony before both the House and Senate judiciary committees that he had not talked to potential witnesses about the events surrounding the firings. "I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation and department investigations," Gonzales said on April 19.
Several legal experts said the federal laws that could apply to wrongdoing such as witness tampering, suborning perjury or obstruction of justice all require evidence of corrupt or improper motives on the part of a potential defendant. Gillers said Goodling's description of her meeting with Gonzales amounts to a "vague narrative" that would potentially pose difficulties for a prosecutor.
"It really depends on what the person's intent was, and you can infer intent from words and conduct and tone," said James A. Cohen, an associate professor at Fordham University Law School and an expert on witness-tampering statutes.
"There is something fundamentally inappropriate about the attorney general of the United States recounting his recollection to a subordinate in this type of situation," Cohen said. "But it may not be subornation of perjury or witness tampering or obstruction of justice."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.