No Grand Jury for Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales resigned as attorney general in August 2007.
Alberto Gonzales resigned as attorney general in August 2007. (Dennis Cook - Associated Press)
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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

Former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales will not be referred to a federal grand jury for his role in the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys, but a long-awaited report to be released today will recommend that a prosecutor continue to probe the involvement of lawmakers and White House officials in the episode, according to two people familiar with the case.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility Director H. Marshall Jarrett, who wrote the report, will not absolve department officials of blame but will recommend that efforts to resolve unanswered questions continue, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the findings had not been made public.

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey is preparing to name a prosecutor from within the department to address the questions, ensuring that the politically charged issue will extend into the next administration, the sources said. An intense effort to determine how the firing plan originated and whether perjury or obstruction-of-justice laws were violated in refusing to reveal the basis for the dismissals has been thwarted, partly because investigators lack the power to compel testimony from people outside the department. Some of those officials could have played a critical role in recommending that specific prosecutors be fired.

In their 18-month review, investigators sifted through thousands of documents and interviewed scores of people to test the reasons that department leaders offered for the prosecutors' dismissals. They also set out to determine whether the prosecutors were sacked in an improper attempt to influence particular cases.

The basis for the dismissals is the subject of a tug of war between Congress and the executive branch. This year, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sued to seek documents and testimony from former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and from President Bush's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten. A federal appeals court in Washington is deliberating the case. Meanwhile, the House panel recently voted to hold former presidential adviser Karl Rove in contempt for refusing to answer questions about the firings.

The political heat intensified last year amid more than half a dozen congressional hearings into the issue. Ultimately, 19 Justice Department officials in Washington resigned.

Current and former lawyers in the department, however, said criminal charges against Gonzales, who stepped aside in August 2007, were unlikely absent the emergence of new e-mails or witness accounts that directly contradict his statements about the firings.

Monica M. Goodling, who served as the department's White House liaison, told Congress last year that she felt "uncomfortable" during a March 2007 conversation with Gonzales that focused on her recollections of the circumstances surrounding the dismissals. Her account of the meeting prompted lawmakers to accuse Gonzales of improperly trying to influence her testimony. He denied the allegations, saying he was only trying to comfort a distraught employee. Goodling is one of several former aides who declined to be interviewed by investigators, who lack the power to issue subpoenas.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers challenged Gonzales's truthfulness in a series of hostile hearings in the summer of 2007. The sessions highlighted his inability to remember key meetings, e-mails and memos laying out plans for the dismissals. Gonzales, who has not landed full-time legal work since his resignation, told Congress that he delegated many decisions to his subordinates and should have exercised more oversight.

"We are gratified that the report apparently verifies . . . that Judge Gonzales's action in the removal of certain U.S. Attorneys was proper and appropriate," said George J. Terwilliger III, Gonzales's attorney.

U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason. But contradictory explanations for the dismissals, and the steady release of internal e-mails suggesting the plan had evolved over two years in consultation with White House officials, damaged the department's reputation and credibility. The report will sift through all of the conflicting data about prosecutors who found themselves on lists prepared by D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Gonzales.

Among the most closely watched of the cases is one involving former New Mexico U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias, who says he received troubling phone calls from GOP Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson about the status of a criminal corruption probe against a prominent local Democrat shortly before the 2006 elections. In April, the Senate Ethics Committee admonished Domenici, who is retiring.

Investigators failed in their attempts to interview lawmakers, their assistants or former White House aides. As a result, they asked Mukasey to continue the probe by appointing a prosecutor.

Despite calls from some of the fired U.S. attorneys, Mukasey has not named a special prosecutor from outside the department. He intends to hand over the project to a career prosecutor with experience in public corruption work, the sources said.

Earlier this year, Mukasey tapped a veteran federal prosecutor from Connecticut to investigate the destruction of CIA videotapes that depicted the interrogation of prisoners suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. In that case, the attorney general said more inquiry was needed to determine whether laws had been broken but warned that criminal charges would not necessarily follow.

Mukasey is expected to adopt a similar approach in the case of the U.S. attorneys' firings, picking a career prosecutor who will report to the Justice Department's second in command.

Any documents and interviews that are gathered by the career prosecutor presumably will be covered under federal grand jury and investigative protections, keeping them under wraps for months, until after Bush leaves office.

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