By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer and washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
The Justice Department's inspector general indicated yesterday that he is investigating whether departing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales gave false or misleading testimony to Congress, including whether he lied under oath about warrantless surveillance and the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
The disclosure by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine in a letter to Congress signals an expansion of the department's internal investigations into Gonzales's troubled tenure, probes that were not previously known to be focused so sharply on the attorney general and his testimony.
Fine's office has also separately expanded a probe into whether senior Gonzales aides improperly considered partisan affiliations when reviewing applicants for nonpolitical career positions. As part of that inquiry, Fine sent hundreds of questionnaires in the past week to former Justice Department job applicants.
In the questionnaires, Fine asks applicants whether they were quizzed by political appointees about their party affiliation, favorite politicians and judges, voting history, campaign contributions, and views on the death penalty and terrorism, according to a copy of the Aug. 24 questionnaire obtained by The Washington Post. Recipients are also asked to say whether White House aides participated in the interviews and to confirm if they were asked "what kind of conservative you were (law and order; social; fiscal)."
Gonzales announced his resignation Monday after seven months of sustained conflict with Congress over the prosecutor dismissals and other issues, telling aides that his credibility with lawmakers had been too damaged for him to continue. Democrats and some Republicans had urged him to resign amid allegations that he and his aides repeatedly let political considerations taint the law enforcement mission at Justice.
The scope and pace of the investigations suggest that public attention on Gonzales will probably continue long after he leaves his job on Sept. 17. But officials declined yesterday to say whether Fine's expanding investigations played a role in the attorney general's resignation.
Gonzales had said as recently as late July that he was intent on staying on the job to "fix the problems" at Justice. But his contradictory or murky congressional testimony, including his repeated assertions that he could not recall key events related to the firings, prompted several Senate Democrats to call on the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to consider perjury charges against him.
Fine, in a letter yesterday to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said his office "has ongoing investigations" related to Gonzales's testimony on several key issues, including the prosecutor firings and allegations of improper hiring practices, the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program, the FBI's use of national security letters, and Gonzales's characterizations of his conversation with an aide before a House hearing.
Fine had previously confirmed that he was looking at whether Gonzales tried to improperly influence potential testimony by talking about the prosecutor firings with the aide, former senior counselor and White House liaison Monica M. Goodling.
Goodling testified in May that she had "crossed the line" by considering political criteria in hiring career professionals at Justice, including looking up political donations by some applicants. She and D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's former chief of staff, also admitted using such criteria in the appointment of administrative immigration judges, who are considered career employees.
Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that questions about Gonzales's testimony had "eroded the public's trust and undermined morale" at Justice. "The current Attorney General is leaving, but these questions remain," he said. "It is appropriate that the Inspector General will examine whether the Attorney General was honest with this and other Congressional committees about these crucial issues."
Fine has the authority to refer cases for criminal prosecution, including on perjury or obstruction-of-justice charges, if warranted. He and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility, can also recommend internal disciplinary action for violations of department rules and guidelines, although many Gonzales aides involved in the controversial actions have left the government.
Leahy had asked Fine earlier this month to include parts of Gonzales's testimony in his investigation. Fine said in yesterday's letter that those subjects were already being examined by him and Jarrett, who is working with him on several aspects of the probes. "We believe that through those investigations and other OIG reviews we will be able to assess most of the issues that you raise," Fine wrote, using the abbreviation for the Office of the Inspector General.
Fine's office declined to comment on the letter yesterday. The Justice Department also declined to comment.
In a letter sent with the questionnaire for former job applicants, Fine said that he and Jarrett "are conducting a joint investigation of allegations regarding Monica Goodling's and others' hiring and other personnel decisions," and that recipients of the letter "may have been interviewed by or spoken with" Goodling or others about job openings at Justice.
In addition to Goodling, the letter names Sampson, former White House liaison Jan Williams and former aide Angela Williamson as possible interviewers of job applicants. Williams and Williamson, who no longer work at Justice and have not previously been identified in connection with the investigation, could not be reached for comment.
The period covered by the surveys is Jan. 1, 2004, to April 2007, indicating that investigators are also looking at hiring practices under then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who was replaced by Gonzales in February 2005.
The questionnaire includes separate sections for applicants who sought political jobs and for those who were interviewed for career positions, but both groups are asked whether they were questioned about political beliefs and ties.
Both groups are also asked if they filled out a White House "non-career appointment form" seeking information about their voting history, candidate contributions and campaign experience.
None of the key aides who testified about the prosecutor firings on Capitol Hill -- including Goodling and Sampson -- have been approached by Justice investigators, according to defense lawyers and others familiar with the investigation. That indicates that investigators are in the early or middle stages of their inquiries and may not be planning to contact the central figures in the probe until they have finished speaking to others, defense lawyers said.
The White House said yesterday that President Bush is unlikely to choose a nominee to replace Gonzales until after Bush returns from a trip to Australia next month. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement will serve as acting attorney general.