Gonzales remains on the defensive

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales on Friday defended his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys following damaging testimony from his former chief of staff that Gonzales gave inaccurate accounts of his involvement in the matter.

In Boston to attend an event on preventing sexual exploitation of children, the attorney general told reporters that he wasn’t involved in talks over which individual prosecutors to dismiss. “There obviously remains some confusion about my involvement in this,” Gonzales said. “At the end of the day, I know what I did. And I know that the motivations for the decisions I made were not based on improper reasons.

“I believe in truth and accountability, and every step that I’ve taken is consistent with that principle,” he said. “I am fighting for the truth as well.”

His credibility already smarting from weeks of shifting explanations and surprising, late-night document disclosures, Gonzales took a major hit Thursday when D. Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general had been long and deeply involved in an action that Gonzales has said he knew little about.


Although a two-week recess by Congress may give Gonzales some breathing room, even some Republicans question whether he can last much longer, despite continuing statements of support from the White House.

“I think it is going to be hard for him to recover. He has lost the faith of the U.S. attorneys,” said a top Republican aide, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “And when you have lost the faith of the U.S. attorneys, you have done damage to the department -- even if there is nothing nefarious about it, and even if it was just human error and mistake.”

The backlash over the firings continued Friday on several fronts.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote Gonzales asking him to issue a formal statement clearing the name of former New Mexico U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias, who was among the eight prosecutors dismissed last year.


Schumer cited testimony by Sampson on Thursday that in retrospect he would not have placed Iglesias on the list of prosecutors to be dismissed. The hearing revealed that Iglesias was a late addition to the list and came as the White House and Republican lawmakers were complaining about his handling of a corruption probe involving state Democrats.

Also Friday, congressional investigators spent almost six hours questioning the chief of staff to Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty in the first in a series of private interviews with Justice officials about the firings. The aide, Michael Elston, helped prepare McNulty for a congressional appearance last month in which McNulty gave what turned out to be misleading testimony about the firings.

Elston was also accused of telling one of the fired U.S. attorneys to keep quiet about the affair, an allegation he has denied.

The Justice Department is making six officials who were involved in the dismissals available for questioning before the House Judiciary Committee. The panel said it could not release any details about the interviews as part of an agreement with the Justice Department. Officials said Elston was accompanied by two department attorneys and a private lawyer he had retained.


Meanwhile, many Republicans have become lukewarm, and in a few cases hostile, to Gonzales’ continued stewardship at the department. Many say they are withholding judgment until he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17.

Aside from contradicting Gonzales’ account of the firings, Sampson’s testimony about how the eight prosecutors were targeted struck Democratic and Republican lawmakers as cavalier.

In questioning Sampson on Thursday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) appeared baffled that Gonzales did not appear to take the issue more seriously, and implied that the problem was a lack of experience.

“Did the attorney general himself object? Did he call to the White House and say, ‘This is not a good idea?’ ” Sessions asked.


Sampson replied that Gonzales did not.

A former U.S. attorney in Alabama for 12 years, Sessions said that while an attorney general owes an allegiance to the president who appointed him, “they’re the country’s lawyers. And I think sometimes they just have to say no. And I think a lot of attorney generals have.”

Some former prosecutors think that Gonzales’ failure to appreciate the crucial role U.S. attorneys play in carrying out the daily mission of the Justice Department -- and the alienation that the firings have caused among many of those prosecutors across the country -- could be his undoing.

“Since U.S. attorneys, and the agencies they work with, are the arms through which the department’s business gets done, this is indeed a problem,” said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Fordham law school in New York.


Gonzales has tried to explain that, as the head of a department with more than 110,000 employees, he cannot be held accountable for every decision that is made. He has analogized the job to that of the chief executive of a major corporation.

But some crisis management professionals said Friday that if a chief executive ran his corporation the way Gonzales has run the Justice Department, he would have been fired long ago.

“Brave CEOs will make the sacrifice to save the company. At this point, he is creating a field day for his opponents,” said Richard Levick, a Washington public relations and crisis management executive. “The only good news for the administration is that he largely keeps the Iraq war off the front page.”

But others say that as long as Gonzales has the confidence of Bush and feels the need to defend his reputation, he will try to hang in there.


“He has a lot of determination, a lot of pride,” said William T. Coleman Jr., the former Transportation secretary and civil-rights law pioneer, who befriended Gonzales when he came to Washington in 2001. Coleman said he has written to Bush urging him to retain Gonzales.

While lawmakers were impatient to hear Gonzales’ side of the story, some observers also felt that time was on his side.

“His testimony is going to be messy, but he probably makes it at the end of the day,” predicted Patrick Dorton, another Washington-based crisis communications specialist. “The fact that he is not testifying for a couple more weeks helps the Gonzales cause and the White House cause. A lot could happen in three weeks.”




In their words

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has come under fire for the dismissal last year of eight U.S. attorneys. He initially said the process had been handled by his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson. But a Justice Department document and testimony by Sampson have cast doubt on Gonzales’ version of events.


What Gonzales said

At a news conference

March 13:

“My chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers [among the 93 U.S. attorneys]; where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people.... That’s what I knew.”


“Like every CEO, I am ultimately accountable and responsible for what happens within the department. But ... I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”

“The charge for the chief of staff here was to drive this process. And the mistake that occurred here was that information that he had was not shared with individuals within the department who would then be providing testimony and information to the Congress.”

In an interview Monday

on NBC News:


“When I said on March 13th that I wasn’t involved, what I meant was that I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign.”

“Ultimately at the end of the process or near the end of the process, the recommendations were presented to me ... that reflected the recommendations of Kyle Sampson and of others in the department. And so there was obviously a discussion with respect to that recommendation. And, of course having decided there will be changes, there was a discussion about how do we implement this change? And so that is, in essence, the context of my involvement.”

What Sampson said

In testimony Thursday to the Senate Judiciary Committee:


“I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate. I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign.”

“I don’t remember if the attorney general ever saw documents. I didn’t prepare memos for him on this issue. But we did discuss it as early as -- before he became the attorney general, when he was the attorney general designate in January of 2005, I think; and then, from time to time as the process was, sort of, in a thinking phase through 2005 and 2006. And then I remember discussing it with him as the process sort of came to a conclusion in the fall of 2006.”

“The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president. I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals.”

“I shared information with anyone who wanted it. I was very open and collaborative in the process, in the preparation for [Justice Department officials’ testimony].”


Source: Los Angeles Times