Democrats shift focus in attorney firings probe

Alberto Gonzales
AG Gonzales (AP)

Democrats are shifting their attention on the botched firings of eight federal prosecutors from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' fitness to head the Justice Department to the White House role in the dismissals.

In the three weeks since Gonzales testified before a Senate committee, the department disclosed that it is investigating whether his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, weighed the political affiliations of those she considered hiring as entry-level prosecutors. Consideration of such affiliations could be a violation of federal law.

More of the eight fired U.S. attorneys also have told congressional investigators they were warned that if they publicly protested their dismissals, Justice Department officials would publicly criticize their performance. And there have been new allegations that U.S. attorneys were evaluated on their enthusiasm for pursuing voter fraud cases that might benefit Republican candidates.

Gonzales is expected to be asked about those developments Thursday in his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since Democrats took control of Congress.

"All of that goes to the larger question," House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said Wednesday in a telephone interview. He said the bigger question is who put together and approved the list that caused the eight U.S. attorneys to lose their jobs.

Conyers is holding a subpoena for White House political adviser Karl Rove but has not issued it. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week subpoenaed Gonzales for all e-mails the Justice Department has gathered regarding Rove and the firings.

Senators had little success in getting answers from the attorney general three weeks ago. In more than 70 responses to questions by members of the Senate panel, Gonzales said he could not recall or did not remember conversations or events surrounding the dismissals. Republican supporters were shaken by his performance, but President Bush issued a strong vote of confidence in him.

There was little indication that Gonzales planned to disclose much more. Asked Wednesday during a news conference whether he's refreshed his memory, Gonzales replied: "I can only provide information as to what I know and to what I recall, and that's what I intend to do, as I have done in the past."

Clearly, he's less under siege now. Republican calls for him to resign tapered off after Bush's strong reaffirmation of support for him, and lawmakers have turned their attention to a stalemate with the president over his order to increase troops in Iraq and their growing resolve to bring them home.

In prepared testimony, Gonzales said it's time to move on.

"Recent events must not deter us from our mission. I ask the committee to join me in that commitment and that rededication," he said, citing what he said were accomplishments in protecting national security and fighting pedophiles.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee has asked Bradley Schlozman, a former interim head of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, to speak with investigators about whether former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves in Kansas City was replaced because he refused to sign a federal lawsuit alleging voter fraud in Missouri a year before the 2006 election.

Graves, who resigned, said Wednesday he had no inkling he was on a list of attorneys targeted for replacement.

"When I first interviewed in 2001 with the United States attorney screening committee at DOJ, I was asked to give the panel one attribute that describes me," Graves said. "I said 'independent.' Apparently, that was the wrong attribute."

Gonzales, asked about Graves during a Michigan appearance on Tuesday, said: "I'm not aware he was forced out."

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