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Gonzales frustrates Democrats

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales acknowledged for the first time Thursday that U.S. attorneys might have resigned under pressure from the Justice Department, but said their departures were unrelated to the controversial firings of eight prosecutors last year.

In an often-testy House Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats sought to expand their inquiry beyond the eight prosecutors to broader questions about political interference in Justice Department cases. But Gonzales calmly deflected most of their questions.

And unlike the bipartisan grilling he endured in the Senate last month, several Republicans came to his defense, indicating that Gonzales may have passed the worst of the crisis that put his job in jeopardy.

Democrats pressed him on recent revelations about an exodus of federal prosecutors, in some cases in battleground states central to Republican political fortunes.

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Gonzales confirmed the resignation last year of Todd P. Graves, the former U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo. But he denied charges by Democrats that Graves had been forced out for balking at a voter fraud lawsuit pushed by the Justice Department.

Gonzales said the department had “issues” with another U.S. attorney, Thomas Heffelfinger of Minneapolis, whose resignation last year has touched off an office coup of sorts aimed at his successor.

Gonzales also addressed the resignation last year of Debra Wong Yang, the former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Responding to suggestions that Yang was eased out with a lucrative private-sector job offer to take the heat off Republicans who were being investigated in Southern California, Gonzales said Yang’s resignation was “entirely voluntary” and for reasons he understood to be personal and financial.

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The daylong hearing produced some revelations, including the fact that the Justice Department and White House aides behind the firings had once considered targeting the U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, Steven Biskupic.

The prosecutor was spared, according to documents released at the hearing, because of concern that his firing would alienate Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who was seen as a supporter of Biskupic.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) suggested that Biskupic had succumbed to Republican pressure to bring a corruption case against a state purchasing official who worked for the Democratic governor -- a case that was tossed out by a judge.

Gonzales defended the case, noting that some Democrats in Wisconsin had backed it.

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Democrats, unable to get answers to many of their questions, at times were angry and attacked Gonzales’ competence.

When the attorney general could provide no details on how his former top aide, D. Kyle Sampson, had assembled the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said: “Tell me, just tell me how the U.S. attorney termination list came to be and who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why. Now, that should take about three sentences.”

Gonzales said that Sampson “presented to me what I understood to be the consensus recommendation” of the Justice Department’s “senior leadership.”

“OK, in other words, you don’t know,” Conyers replied.

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Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) was incredulous that Gonzales “won’t tell us who made the recommendation” to fire the prosecutors.

“Are you the attorney general? Do you run the Department of Justice?” asked Wexler, raising his voice in irritation.

Gonzales responded that “out of respect for the integrity of this investigation,” he had not spoken to the people who might know the answer.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) quizzed Gonzales about voter fraud in her state. She was angry that the administration had focused on a few cases but did not pursue broader corruption that would have targeted both political parties.

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Gonzales said investigating voter fraud was “important to the administration,” but he could not recall the cases she cited.

At that, the lawmaker erupted. “I’ve had a hard time today trying to figure out what you do know,” she said.

Several Republicans came to the defense of Gonzales, who seemed more relaxed than he did before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 19.

“The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee’s senior Republican. “If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues.”

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Gonzales disputed reports that Graves, the former U.S. attorney in Kansas City, was asked to leave in January 2006.

Graves has said that he believes he was forced out for not backing a voter fraud lawsuit against Missouri -- a suit launched by his successor but dismissed by the courts.

“I have no basis to believe that case had anything to do with Mr. Graves’ departure,” Gonzales said.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), whose district includes Minneapolis, questioned the attorney general about three veteran supervisors in the U.S. attorney’s office there who have publicly clashed with their boss, Rachel Paulose.

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Paulose, a young lawyer, was sent from Washington to Minneapolis to replace veteran prosecutor Heffelfinger, whom Gonzales said “was identified as someone perhaps we might have issues with.”

Gonzales conceded that there were problems with Paulose’s leadership, and that a Justice Department official from Washington had been sent to Minneapolis to sort out why the U.S. attorney was so disliked.

Gonzales was asked whether Paulose would remain as the top prosecutor in Minneapolis.

“If things do not change, that is something we would have to consider,” he said.

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Heffelfinger, who has said that his decision to leave was his own and that he had no indication that the Justice Department was dissatisfied with his performance, said Thursday that he was “pleased to hear they’re concerned about the situation” in Minneapolis and that corrective steps were being taken.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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