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A former Justice Department official told House investigators Wednesday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to review his version of the prosecutor firings with her at a time when lawmakers were homing in on conflicting accounts.
"It made me a little uncomfortable," Monica Goodling, Gonzales' former White House liaison, said of her conversation with the attorney general just before she took a leave of absence in March. "I just did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened."
In a daylong appearance before the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee, Goodling, 33, also acknowledged crossing a legal line herself by considering the party affiliations of candidates for career prosecutor jobs â€” a violation of law.
And she said that Gonzales' No. 2, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, knew more than he let on when he did not disclose to Congress the extent of White House involvement in deciding which prosecutors to fire. McNulty strongly denied that he withheld information, saying Goodling did not fully brief him about the White House's involvement.
Goodling's dramatic story about her final conversation with Gonzales brought questions from panel members about whether he had tried to align her story with his and whether he was truthful in his own congressional testimony.
Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that he didn't know the answers to some questions about the firings because he was steering clear of aides â€” such as Goodling â€” who were likely to be questioned.
"I haven't talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation and department investigations," Gonzales told the panel.
Goodling said for the first time Wednesday that Gonzales did review the story of the firings with her at an impromptu meeting she requested in his office a few days before she took a leave of absence.
"I was somewhat paralyzed. I was distraught, and I felt like I wanted to make a transfer," Goodling recalled during a packed hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales, she said, indicated he would think about Goodling's request.
"He then proceeded to say, 'Let me tell you what I can remember,' and he laid out for me his general recollection … of some of the process" of the firings, Goodling added. When Gonzales finished, "he asked me if I had any reaction to his iteration."
Goodling said the conversation made her uncomfortable because she was aware that she, Gonzales and others would be called by Congress to testify.
"Was the attorney general trying to shake your recollection?" asked Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.
"I just did not know if it was a conversation we should be having and so I just didn't say anything," she replied. She added that she thought Gonzales was trying to be kind.
"It certainly has the flavor of trying to get their stories straight," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the committee.
The Justice Department denied that Gonzales did anything at that meeting other than try to help Goodling.
"The attorney general has never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness in this matter, including Ms. Goodling," said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "The statements made by the attorney general during this meeting were intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life."
Gonzales' resignation is being demanded by Democrats and some Republicans in part over the firings. Bush is standing by his longtime friend, but Democrats have pressed ahead with their probe, contending the firings may have been an attempt to exploit a loophole in the Patriot Act to install GOP loyalists as prosecutors without Senate confirmation.
Gonzales has denied that. But the furor has been costly nonetheless â€” Goodling and Sampson have resigned over it. McNulty, too, is leaving later this year. And many lawmakers who have not directly demanded Gonzales' resignation say he has lost their confidence.
Republicans spent most of the hearing dismissing the hubbub over the firings as politically motivated. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said Goodling's meeting with Gonzales sounded innocent, if awkward.
"This thing ended with a thud," Lungren said of the hearing.
Earlier Wednesday, Goodling acknowledged that she had given too much consideration to whether candidates for jobs as career prosecutors were Republicans or Democrats.
"You crossed the line on civil service laws, is that right?" asked Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
"I believe I crossed the lines," Goodling replied. "But I didn't mean to."
She said she had limited involvement in the firings and offered the panel's Democrats nothing new in their probe of whether President Bush's top political and legal aides chose which prosecutors to dismiss.
Goodling said she never talked to Karl Rove, Bush's political adviser, nor Harriet Miers, then the president's White House counsel, about the firings. She said Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, drew up the list of those to be dismissed but she didn't know how names got on it.
She testified that McNulty, the department's highest official after Gonzales, knew more than he admitted to congressional investigators about the extent of White House involvement in the firings of eight federal prosecutors. She said McNulty falsely accused her of withholding key details before he spoke to investigators.
"I believe the deputy was not fully candid," Goodling said.
McNulty told senators during the hearing Feb. 6 that the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys in December was made solely by the Justice Department.
He and another top Justice official, William Moschella, say Goodling and Sampson withheld crucial information from them as they prepared their congressional testimony.
"The allegation is false," she told the panel. "I didn't withhold information from the deputy."
McNulty retorted in a statement that his own testimony had been truthful "based on "what I knew at that time."
"Ms. Goodling's characterization of my testimony is wrong and not supported by the extensive record of documents and testimony already provided to Congress," he said.
After resigning, Goodling refused to testify, citing her constitutional right against self-incrimination. She then disappeared from public view, surfacing only Wednesday at the hearing. Conyers won court approval to have her testify under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
Goodling attended numerous meetings over a year's time about the plans to fire the U.S. attorneys and exchanged e-mails with the White House and at least one of the prosecutors before the dismissals were ordered. A former colleague, Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, told congressional investigators this month that Goodling broke down in his office March 8 as majority Democrats in Congress prepared to call Justice Department officials to testify amid the emerging controversy.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes Jordan contributed to this report.