House Panel Nears A Legal Clash With Bush Over Firings

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The House Judiciary Committee announced yesterday that it will press toward a constitutional showdown with the Bush administration over the U.S. attorney firings scandal, even as embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales vowed to stay on and "fix the problems" that have damaged the reputation and morale of the Justice Department.

John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, said it will vote on Wednesday on contempt citations for the White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers. Both refused congressional demands for information on the dismissals after President Bush invoked executive privilege.

The move puts House Democrats on a legal collision course with the White House, which said last week that it will not allow the Justice Department to prosecute executive branch officials for being in contempt of Congress.

Gonzales's promise to remain in office, made in written testimony to be delivered today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, comes as many Justice Department employees say they are dispirited and have little confidence in their politically wounded leader.

Most members of Gonzales's senior staff have resigned or are on the way out. Several outside candidates turned down chances to be considered for the job of his deputy, and more than a half-dozen other top positions remain filled by temporary appointees. Some of the department's key legislative priorities -- including intelligence law revisions and anti-crime proposals -- have also bogged down because of the fight with Democrats over the prosecutor firings.

"It takes away from normal work," one recently departed Justice official said about the persistent controversy over Gonzales's role in the firings and the use of improper political considerations in hiring career employees. "It obviously has a serious impact," said the former official, who would discuss the department's internal workings only if not identified.

Many lawmakers, including some Republicans, have said that Gonzales should resign. But in his testimony, released yesterday, Gonzales said: "I could walk away or I could devote my time, effort and energy to fix the problems. Since I have never been one to quit, I decided that the best course of action was to remain here."

Referring indirectly to criticism that young, ideologically oriented aides such as former senior counselor Monica M. Goodling made improper decisions, Gonzales said, "I will continue to make efforts to ensure that my staff and others within the department have the appropriate experience and judgment so that previous mistakes will not be repeated."

Gonzales again depicted himself as largely detached from controversial personnel practices, including the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys last year. But in a video message to Justice Department employees on Friday, he said, "I am sorry, and I accept full responsibility."

"I am troubled because the allegations regarding the politicization of this historic institution -- an institution that stands for and protects the rights of the citizens of the greatest, most free nation on Earth -- have occurred on my watch," Gonzales said, according to a transcript.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday: "We are confident that the men and women of the department are working distraction-free, protecting our neighborhoods from violent gangs, preventing acts of terrorism and protecting our children from predators."

In the House, Conyers said the decision to move forward with contempt proceedings was made reluctantly, but he asserted that the committee had few options in the face of the White House's refusal to comply with committee subpoenas. "It is still my hope that they will reconsider this hard-line position and cooperate with our investigation so that we can get to the bottom of this matter," Conyers said.

The panel's move comes after months of legal feuding between congressional Democrats and Bush. He has declared that details about the firings are protected from disclosure by executive privilege and need not be shared with Congress.

The U.S. attorney firings last year -- including seven on one day in December -- came after a two-year effort by senior White House and Justice Department aides that targeted prosecutors for removal based in part on their perceived loyalty to the Bush administration and the GOP.

Several of the prosecutors were improperly contacted by GOP lawmakers or staff members about active criminal probes of corruption involving elected officials. Justice investigators are looking into whether civil service laws were violated in other hiring and firing decisions.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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