Gonzales Faces Anger From Both Sides on Senate Panel
WASHINGTON, April 19 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales encountered anger and skepticism from senators today as he insisted that he had nothing to hide in the dismissals of eight United States attorneys, an episode that has cast a shadow on the Justice Department and brought calls for his resignation.
“I am here today to do my part to ensure that all facts about this matter are brought to light,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, noting that the panel’s inquiry into the dismissals had already yielded thousands of pages of internal departmental communications and hours of interviews with department officials.
“These are not the actions of someone with something to hide,” Mr. Gonzales said in his opening remarks.
His reception from Democrats and Republicans alike, at a hearing that was widely seen as a make-or-break event, did not seem to augur well for Mr. Gonzales. But at the end of the day, the White House issued a statement that President Bush thought Mr. Gonzales’s testimony had gone well, and that he had “full confidence” in the attorney general.
It was no surprise that Democrats were generally critical of him, but so were several Republicans. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania questioned Mr. Gonzales’s honesty as well as his competence, while Senator John Cornyn of Texas said the handling of the dismissals had been “deplorable.” And Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, said Mr. Gonzales should “suffer the consequences” of the bungled dismissals and resign.
Mr. Gonzales has been battling amid accusations that he has been less than forthcoming, at best, about his role in the firing of the federal prosecutors. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said the attorney general had a “tremendous credibility problem.”
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department “is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history.”
“The Department of Justice should never be reduced to another political arm of the White House — this White House or any White House,” Mr. Leahy said. “The Department of Justice must be worthy of its name.”
Mr. Leahy made it clear that he was not persuaded by the repeated assertions from President Bush and his allies that the dismissals of the United States attorneys, who are political appointees and serve at the pleasure of the president, were above board.
“Indeed,” Mr. Leahy said, “the apparent reason for these terminations had a lot more to do with politics than performance.”
Democrats have questioned whether at least some of the eight prosecutors were fired because they were being too aggressive in investigating possible crimes linked to Republicans, or not aggressive enough in going after Democrats, or both.
“I did not do that,” the grim-faced attorney general told the senators. “I would never do that, nor do I believe that anyone else in the department advocated the removal of a U.S. attorney for such a purpose.”
But Mr. Leahy pressed Mr. Gonzales on conversations he had with Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political adviser, about removing David C. Iglesias, the United States attorney in New Mexico. “So, when was David Iglesias added to the list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced?” Mr. Leahy asked.
When Mr. Gonzales said he did not remember, although he thought Mr. Iglesias was slated for removal between Oct. 17 and Dec. 15, Mr. Leahy responded: “He was added either before or after the elections, but you don’t know when. Is that what you’re saying?”
Mr. Gonzales insisted that he did not recall the timing. So Mr. Leahy asked why Mr. Iglesias was let go, since Mr. Gonzales himself had earlier expressed confidence in him: “When and why did he lose your confidence?”
Mr. Gonzales said in reply that Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, had expressed concerns about Mr. Iglesias. “He called me and said something to the effect that Mr. Iglesias was in over his head,” Mr. Gonzales said, adding that the senator was concerned that Mr. Iglesias was not focusing enough on “public corruption cases.”
The circumstances surrounding Mr. Iglesias’s firing have aroused particular interest, since Mr. Domenici is known to have queried Mr. Iglesias about the prosecutor’s refusal to pursue a possible voter-fraud case.
In insisting that politics has played no part in the department’s decisions about whom to prosecute and when, Mr. Gonzales noted that Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican linked to a lobbying scandal, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges six weeks before last November’s elections.
“We could have taken the plea after the election, and I’m sure when we took that plea, there were some Republicans around the country probably scratching their head, wondering, ‘what in the world are they doing?’ ” Mr. Gonzales said. “Well, what we’re doing is doing what’s best for the case. That’s what we do. We don’t let politics play a role — partisan politics play a role in the decisions we make in cases.”
Another dismissal in the spotlight is that of Carol C. Lam, who was the United States attorney in San Diego and who successfully prosecuted former Representative Randy Cunningham, a Republican, on corruption charges. Still another high-profile dismissal was that of H.E. Cummins III in Arkansas, removed to make way for J. Timothy Griffin, a protégé of Mr. Rove.
Mr. Gonzales conceded that his accounts of the firings, and his role in them, had been marked by imprecision and “misstatements.” But his expression of contrition did not seem to help him this morning.
Mr. Leahy and Mr. Specter, the panel’s ranking Republican, had already recalled inconsistencies in Mr. Gonzales’s recollections in their opening remarks, especially the fact that Mr. Gonzales’s former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, testified that Mr. Gonzales was “incorrect” in his earlier declarations that he was not involved in discussions about letting the prosecutors go.
“I’d like you to win this debate,” Mr. Specter told Mr. Gonzales. “But you’re going to have to win it.”
Mr. Specter wondered aloud whether Mr. Gonzales “had been candid — more bluntly, truthful” in his earlier assertions that he was not involved in the dismissals, or at least not deeply involved. “Were you prepared for the press conference where you said there weren’t any discussions involving you?” Mr. Specter said, alluding to the attorney general’s March 13 news conference at the Justice Department.
“Senator, I’ve already said that I misspoke,” Mr. Gonzales said. “It was my mistake.”
That did not satisfy Mr. Specter at all. “I don’t think you’re going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly,” he said. “Let’s get to the facts.”
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Specter asked Mr. Gonzales if he thought it was “a fair, honest characterization to say that you had only a ‘limited involvement in the process’?”
“Senator, I don’t want to quarrel with you,” Mr. Gonzales replied.
“I don’t want you to, either,” Mr. Specter said. “I just want you to answer the question.”
When Mr. Gonzales insisted that his involvement in the firings had been limited, Mr. Specter told him that his description of his role was “significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts.” It was clear that, for at least some members of the committee, there was no longer a debate about whether Mr. Gonzales should stay.
“It cannot make anyone happy to have to question the credibility and competence of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and one of Mr. Gonzales’s harshest critics. “This is, however, a predicament strictly of the attorney general’s own making.”
“The circumstantial evidence is substantial and growing,” Mr. Schumer said, alluding to allegations of political interference with prosecutions, “and the burden is on the attorney general to refute it.”
The attorney general said each of the eight fired prosecutors is “a fine lawyer and dedicated professional,” and that the dismissals should have been handled more gracefully.
Mr. Gonzales got a friendly reception from Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and a former United States attorney, who urged Mr. Gonzales to be “honest and direct” and predicted that the attorney general’s basic goodness “will show through.”
But, perhaps ominously for Mr. Gonzales, even Mr. Sessions said he thought Mr. Gonzales had been less than candid about his part in the firings, and that the entire affair had hurt the Justice Department.
“It has raised questions that I wish had not been raised, because when United States attorneys go into court, they have to appear before juries, and those juries have to believe that they’re there because of the merit of the case, and that they have personal integrity,” Mr. Sessions said.
“So this matter’s taken on a bit of life of its own, it seems,” he added. “Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question. I wish that weren’t so, but I think it certainly is.”
President Bush has continued to voice support for Mr. Gonzales, his old friend from Texas, but has said that Mr. Gonzales must re-establish faith in his leadership. Today’s hearing was widely regarded as a make-or-break event for him.
“I have learned important lessons from this experience, which will guide me in my important responsibilities,” Mr. Gonzales said. “I believe that Americans focus less on whether someone makes a mistake than on what he or she does to set things right.”