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Gonzales feels heat from GOP senators

Times Staff Writer

Three Republican senators joined Democrats on Sunday in saying that the credibility of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales had been badly undercut by his confused and seemingly contradictory statements on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

“He has said some things that just don’t add up,” Senate Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “The attorney general has been wounded. He’s going to have to come to the Senate to reestablish his credibility.”

Gonzales is to testify before the committee April 17 -- an appearance that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s top Republican, called a “make-or-break situation for him.”

“Look, we have to have an attorney general who is candid and truthful,” Specter told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And if we find he has not been candid and truthful, that’s a very compelling reason for him not to stay on.”

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The comments from Graham, Specter and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska weren’t the only criticisms from the GOP side of the aisle on Sunday. Even Republicans who are normally strong administration supporters questioned the way the Justice Department had dealt with the situation, though they stopped short of directly criticizing Gonzales.

“It is a fact that it hasn’t been handled well,” Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told “Fox News Sunday.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), formerly the Judiciary Committee chairman, said on CNN’s “Late Edition,” “Let’s be honest about it: The Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing.”

It is unusual for an administration to fire a group of prosecutors that it appointed. Gonzales has said the eight prosecutors were dismissed for “performance-related” reasons rather than because of political pressure from Republicans or the White House, as critics allege.

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A recently released memo written by D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ then-chief of staff, said that in early 2005, President Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove, and then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers suggested replacing some U.S. attorneys while retaining, as Sampson put it, “loyal Bushies.”

“We do serve at the pleasure of the president,” one of the dismissed prosecutors, H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “But in this case, it looks like the authority was delegated down through Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old kids who got in a room together and tried to decide who was the most loyal to the president.”

Cummins, who served as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., said the Justice Department’s contention that he and his colleagues were dismissed for poor performance was “outrageous.”

Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty has acknowledged that Cummins was fired so that Timothy Griffin, a protege of Rove, could take over in Little Rock, according to accounts of McNulty’s Feb. 6 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The firings have raised questions about the influence of politics on prosecutions, particularly because some of those ousted had been involved in corruption investigations of Republicans or had declined to file charges against Democrats. Two weeks ago, Gonzales went before cameras at the Justice Department and sought to distance himself from the growing controversy.

He said he “was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on We never had a discussion about where things stood.”

But on Friday night, the Justice Department released a memo from Sampson that set a one-hour meeting for Nov. 27 of Gonzales and senior aides “re: U.S. attorneys” in “AG’s conference room.” Ten days after the meeting, the prosecutors were dismissed.

Specter said Gonzales “is going to have an explanation as to why he said he wasn’t involved in discussions -- that’s the key word -- and now you have these e-mails which appear to contradict that.”

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The attorney general “does have a credibility problem,” Hagel said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I don’t know if he got bad advice or he was not involved in day-to-day management. I don’t know what the problem is, but he’s got a problem. You cannot have the nation’s chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another Judiciary Committee member, went further, telling “Fox News Sunday” that the Friday-night memo had convinced her that Gonzales should resign.

“I think he’s been damaged very badly,” she said. “He certainly has in my eyes and, I believe, in the eyes of the nation and in the eyes of many, many senators.”

Feinstein said Gonzales had called her when she first raised questions in early January about the dismissals, which included two from California -- Kevin Ryan of San Francisco and Carol Lam of San Diego.

“He told me I didn’t know my facts, I didn’t know what I was doing. And it turns out he wasn’t telling me the truth then, either,” she said.

The criticism Sunday comes less than two weeks after three Republicans -- Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach -- publicly called on Gonzales to resign.

Sampson, who stepped down as Gonzales’ chief of staff March 12, is to appear before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Panel Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) told “Face the Nation” that he was concerned the administration was trying to make Sampson, whose name appears on many of the memos and e-mails about the dismissals, “the fall guy.”

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“We find so many e-mails that contradict what the attorney general has said, contradict what the deputy attorney general has said, contradict what the White House has said,” Leahy said.

The Friday-night timing for release of the latest memos raised questions as well.

That afternoon, Sampson had informed the Judiciary Committee that he would voluntarily testify.

Lawyers involved in the process expected that he would be questioned about the role of the attorney general in the dismissals.

Just hours later, the Justice Department announced it had found the notice from Sampson scheduling the Nov. 27 meeting with Gonzales to discuss the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Early last week, the Justice Department released 3,000 pages of memos related to its handling of the U.S. attorneys issue, but the note on the meeting in Gonzales’ office was not among them.

Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the notice of the meeting was overlooked because it was not an e-mail that circulated among the principal players.

“Nobody had thought to check calendar notices,” he said. When the notice was spotted Thursday, it was set for release the next day, he said.

david.savage@latimes.com


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