Gonzales Now Says Top Aides Got Political Briefings
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Justice Department officials attended at least a dozen political briefings at the White House since 2001, including some meetings led by Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, and others that were focused on election trends prior to the 2006 midterm contest, according to documents released yesterday.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that he did not believe that senior Justice Department officials had attended such briefings. But he clarified his testimony yesterday in a letter to Congress, emphasizing that the briefings were not held at the agency's offices.
Internal guidelines forbid partisan meetings at the Justice Department and sharply restrict the ability of employees to participate directly in election campaigns or other political activities, a Justice official said yesterday. But the official, who declined to be identified publicly discussing the issue, said But the official, who declined to be identified publicly discussing the issue, said the type of meetings held at the White House did not appear to run afoul of department policy.
A list of briefings for Justice officials was included with a letter sent yesterday from Gonzales to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which sought to clarify and correct parts of his testimony before the panel on July 24. The list was sent to House oversight committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) in June, but it had not been released publicly before yesterday.
At the July 24 hearing, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked Gonzales whether any of "the leadership of the Department of Justice" had participated in political briefings, pointing to examples involving employees from the State Department, Peace Corps and U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Not that I'm aware of. . . . I don't believe so, sir," Gonzales said.
Justice officials attended 12 political briefings at the White House, and another held at the Department of Agriculture, from 2001 to 2006, according to the list sent to Waxman. At least five were led by Rove or included presentations by him.
The list compiled by Justice did not include many details about the kind of information presented at those briefings. One March 2001 meeting included a "political update" from Rove and a discussion on "how we can work together to advance the President's agenda."
Political briefings by White House aides have become a political flashpoint on Capitol Hill in recent months. Waxman is investigating whether the meetings violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity on federal government property.
The White House has denied that the briefings were improper, saying they were merely informational meetings for political appointees. Sara M. Taylor, the former White House political director, and J. Scott Jennings, the current deputy political director, have testified that the briefings were designed to thank such appointees for their service to the president.
Other briefings given by Taylor and Jennings have included detailed PowerPoint presentations, including district-by-district analyses of critical House races. Top ambassadors in early January learned from Rove and Taylor the top 36 targets among House Democratic incumbents in the 2008 races, while State Department employees at a White House meeting in 2001 learned what the most critical media markets were for Bush's reelection in 2004.
The Office of Special Counsel, conducting its own investigation, has ruled that a briefing at the General Services Administration in late January violated the Hatch Act.
Meanwhile, Congress has questioned the role that political considerations played inside Gonzales's Justice Department in both the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year and in the hiring of career employees, the latter an apparent violation of civil-service laws.
Most of the Justice briefings were attended by the department's White House liaisons, including Monica M. Goodling, who left that post earlier this year amid the controversy over the firings of U.S. attorneys. Others present included D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff, and several people who held the top or deputy positions in the department's legislative affairs office.
Gonzales's letter was part of a broader set of correspondence with senators in which he clarified some of his remarks of July 24 but stood by the accuracy of his testimony on a number of major issues, including his characterizations of a warrantless surveillance program and of abuses under the USA Patriot Act.