Posted Apr 19, 2007 03:44 pm CDT
Under often heated questioning from Senate Judiciary Committee members on Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held firm on his stance that the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys were proper, though poorly handled.
ABA Journal senior writer Debra Weiss and legal affairs reporter Martha Neil followed the testimony and filed regular updates throughout the day:
Hearing Adjourned / 4:49 p.m. ET
Sen. Leahy: Major Concerns Must be Addressed / 4:42 p.m. ET
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., also indicated at the end of the hearing that he thought Gonzales had to go. He is afraid, the committee chair said, “that politics have entered the [Justice] Department to an unprecedented extent,” citing concerns about “poor management.” And, he added, “many people have been appointed who I do not believe are competent,” in an apparent reference to those at the Justice Department who were responsible for the evaluations and firings of the eight U.S. attorneys.
“This is a day that does not make me happy at all,” Leahy concluded. He said that he has never been “more concerned for the system of criminal justice in this country” than he is now.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Resignation Up to AG and President / 4:39 p.m. ET
“I’m not going to call for your resignation,” Sen. Arlen Specter told Gonzales, although his self-described “friendly” comments suggested that he also felt Gonzales might be well-advised to do so.
Specter said the reason why he was not directly telling Gonzales to resign is that it is the prerogative of Gonzales himself to decide to do so, and, potentially, the president, to ask for his resignation if Gonzales does not voluntarily do so.
Sen. Schumer: Step Down for Good of Country / 4:35 p.m. ET
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY, called at the conclusion of the hearing for Gonzales to step down, noting that he had answered some 100 questions by saying he didn’t recall or didn’t know the answer. His performance completely failed to answer the “who, when and why” questions he needed to answer, Schumer said, telling him “for the good of the department and the good of the country, step down.”
Gonzales responded by saying that the Senate hadn’t met its burden of proof to show that he had done something improper.
But Schumer said it would be the Senate’s burden to prove Gonzales’ alleged misconduct if he was criminally charged. The standard is much higher for the job performance of the chief federal prosecutor for this country, the senator said – it was up to Gonzales to show that he had done his job properly, and he had failed to do so.
Sen. Whitehouse: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen / 4:19 p.m. ET
All sides agree that federal prosecutors need to be independent of the White House, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, and Gonzales agreed.
But, the senator said, two documents he gave to Gonzales at the hearing show that the number of people, in the Executive Branch and at the Justice Department authorized to discuss prosecution issues in federal cases has increased dramatically under President Bush.
While only a handful of high officials on each side were authorized to talk about prosecution policy concerning pending criminal cases during President Clinton’s administration, the list under President Bush has expanded to some 417 people, Whitehouse said, if he and his staff are counting correctly.
“I’m as concerned as you are,” Gonzales told him, in response to what Whitehouse said – and the AG agreed – is a “profound change” in the number of people authorized to talk about prosecution policy.
10-Minute Break / Starting at 4:06 p.m. ET
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., Focused on Voting Rights / 4:02 p.m. ET
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., focused on what he said was the increasing issue of minorities being discouraged from voting by long lines at the polling place, and other tactics, such as malfunctioning voting machines and inaccurate written handouts about voting rights.
“I really appreciate how important the right to vote is,” Gonzales said, pointing out that he himself had grown up in a poor neighborhood.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah: No Wrongdoing / 3:50 p.m. ET
A friendlier voice followed, as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, pointed out that the executive branch does have the power to hire and fire federal prosecutors. That leaves two questions, he said: Whether the dismissals of the eight U.S. attorneys at issue here was improper, and “did any administration officials knowingly mislead or lie to the public?”
The answer to both questions, he said, is “a resounding no.”
“I think we can all agree that this was poorly handled,” Hatch said in a subsequent exchange.
“Yes sir,” Gonzales replied.
But the AG has taken “full responsibility” Hatch continued, noting that Gonzales is very busy and supervises some 100,000 employees of the Justice Department.
“At the end of the day, I know that I did not do anything improper,” the AG said.
“You’ve taken a lot of lumps here, but you’ve also handled yourself well, too,” Hatch said a little later.
Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., Who Decided to Fire U.S. Attorneys? / 3:39 p.m. ET
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., brought the hearing back to the issue of the eight fired U.S. attorneys. At the end of the day, it still wasn’t clear who decided which U.S. attorneys to fire, she said, adding that seven out of the eight were involved in public corruption prosecutions and many had “stellar” performance reports.
“I would like to know who selected the individuals that were on that list. Somebody had to, a human being had to,” she told Gonzales.
“Let me tell you what I understood,” Gonzales replied, once again indicating that others in the Justice Department were responsible, although not clearly stating who.
“Mr. Sampson testified he didn’t. He was just an aggregator,” Feinstein shot back.
She never got a specific answer from Gonzales about who made the actual firing decision.
“I would like to ask that question, but out of respect for this investigation, I have not done so,” the AG said at one point.
Following up, Feinstein pointed out that political fallout was expected by senior officials over the firings, and “it would just seem to me that you would want to know” how the decisions were made. While Gonzales paints a picture of “an amorphous senior leadership” that many probably picture as gray-haired, “in fact they are very young and sometimes very ideological people,” she said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Focus on Other Topics / 3:30 p.m. ET
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa, the ranking Republican on the committee, focused on the shooting massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech on Monday, and national security letters that he said had been “misused, flagrantly” the by Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Gonzales essentially agreed to follow up on these issues.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Chair: Hard-hitting follow-up / 3:20 p.m. ET
At the tail end of the hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chair, hit Gonzales hard with a number of key questions.
Among them: Had the president asked Gonzales to fire U.S. attorneys? Is the Justice Department investigating the much-publicized case of at least thousands of government e-mails apparently missing from archives that are supposed to be kept, according to federal law?
Responding in hesitant fashion, Gonzales seemed unsure of the exact answers to these and other questions. However, he indicated that the president had not asked for the firings, and that the Justice Department is not investigating why e-mails repeated prior statements admitting mistakes in the process and accepting responsibility, although other government agencies may be doing so.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: Asked and Answered / 3:12 p.m. ET
Saying that most of the important questions had already been asked, Kyl mainly discussed other matters with Gonzales.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I: ‘Improper’ Influence by AG Office / 3:02 p.m. ET
Whitehouse also castigated Gonzales over the firings, saying that the way he defines “improper” influence is far too circumscribed. At least some of the firings were “highly destructive of that independence” that federal prosecutors have to have to do their jobs properly, the senator said.
He and Gonzales clearly differed on how improper influence by the AG’s office should be defined. Gonzales seemed to be saying that “policies and priorities” were an appropriate subject for discussion with prosecutors, but Whitehouse called for a hands-off approach.
The senator described as “quite damaging and evil” the message sent to all federal prosecutors by telling even a single U.S. attorney, known for aggressively prosecuting corruption cases, “you’re not doing enough immigration prosecutions, therefore you’re fired.”
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Calls on Gonzales to Resign 2:52 p.m. ET
Coburn slammed Gonzales for poor performance, and called for his resignation. “Why should you not be judged by the same standards with which you judged these dismissed attorneys?” he asked Gonzales, saying that he had handled the firings “in a very incompetent manner” and tainted the reputation of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.
“I like you as a man,” Coburn told the AG, “but I believe mistakes have consequences.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md. Says Firings Sent Political Message 2:43 p.m. ET
Grilled by the senator about the adverse “public perception” that Cardin said was obviously created by the firings, Gonzales insisted he was “very, very committed” to not interfering with cases for political reasons.
“Don’t you see,” Cardin asked, “that this could be seen as trying to send a message to U.S. attorneys around the country to try to stay away from” politically sensitive cases?
“I was relying on what I believed to be the consensus recommendation of the department,” Gonzales said, again insisting that, while the process was flawed, the result was appropriate.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa: Explain Conflicting Statements 2:35 p.m. ET
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hadn’t yet made up his mind about Gonzales, but expressed concern about “conflicting statements” controverted by documents subsequently produced by the Justice Department and “so many inconsistencies” in various public statements about the firings.
“We just don’t have a straight story,” he told Gonzales, later asking him “who came up” with the plan to evaluate the U.S. attorneys’ job performance.
“Senator, I think that was my plan,” Gonzales replied, admitting that “mistakes were made” in the process of doing so.
Lunch Break/ 12:45 p.m. ET
The Judiciary Committee Hearing is breaking for lunch until 2 p.m. ET
Sen. Richard Durbin Questions Gonzales’ Effectiveness / 12:41 p.m. ET
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said testimony today by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales raises questions about whether he can continue to serve effectively.
Durbin said Gonzales’ conversations about U.S. attorneys with Karl Rove, a political adviser to President Bush, raise questions about politics interfering with political decisions.
Gonzales acknowledged in testimony today that he spoke to White House political adviser Karl Rove about voter fraud prosecutions not being brought in New Mexico. However, Gonzales said he did not speak specifically about the removal of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias.
He also said that he had spoken to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., about his concerns that Iglesias was in “over his head” and to President Bush about concerns that voter fraud cases were not being aggressively pursued in three districts.
Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee adjourned for lunch at about 12:40 p.m., as observers held up signs and shouted from the gallery.
Sen. Lindsey Graham Sees Justifications as ‘a Stretch’ / 12:30 p.m. ET
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Attorney General Gonzales that his justifications for the firings of eight U.S. attorneys are suspect.
“Most of this is a stretch,” Graham said. He said he thought the real reasons were due to personality conflicts.
“I respectfully disagree with that,” Gonzales replied.
Graham pointed to Gonzales’ testimony earlier today that many of the U.S. attorneys were simply not the right people at the right time. Graham asked if the same statement could be applied to his own position.
Gonzales replied that he believes he can continue to be effective.
Sen. Russ Feingold Claims ‘Concocted’ Reasons for Dismissals / 11:58 a.m. ET
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., stated that nothing in the record demonstrates that Attorney General Gonzales made a sufficient effort to determine why eight prosecutors were recommended for dismissal.
“The fact that various justifications have been made up or concocted after the fact doesn’t cut it with me,” Feingold said.
Gonzales reiterated that he left much of the review process to his staff and he accepted the recommendations. “The decision stands, it should stand. I believe it was the right decision,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales Outlines Better Process / 11:48 a.m. ET
Under questioning by John Cornyn, R-Texas, Attorney General Gonzales looked back at how he would have changed the procedure for reviewing the performance of U.S. attorneys. The attorney general said he would have: –Involved his deputy attorney general more in the process. –Told his chief of staff which individuals he should consult. –Made his own recommendations on U.S. attorneys to be fired. –Made clear the factors that should be taken into account. –Required a face-to-face meeting with each U.S. attorney during the review. –Given prosecutors a chance to respond to concerns. –Defined the kind of performance skills that should be considered.
Feinstein Complains of ‘Equivocation’ / 11:15 a.m. ET
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., accused Attorney General Gonzales of “constant equivocation” in statements about whether it was his decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales responded that he accepted the firing recommendations of his staff, in a review led by chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson. He said he accepts full responsibility for the decisions.
Feinstein took issue with the firing of Carol Lam of California, saying she is one of the top prosecutors in the country. She ticked off several of accomplishments, including public corruption prosecutions.
Gonzales said he was concerned about immigration and gun prosecutions when he dismissed Lam.
Sen. Herb Kohl Asks About Resignation / 11 a.m. ET
Citing surveys showing Alberto Gonzales losing the support of the American public, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., asked why the attorney general should remain in office.
Gonzales responded that he is proud of his accomplishments in the office, and he feels he can continue to be effective.
“The moment I believe I can no longer be effective as attorney general, I will step down,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales Gets Specific / 10:50 a.m. ET
Attorney General Gonzales outlined specific reasons for the firings of U.S. attorneys under questioning by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas.
Reasons ranged from poor management to a lack of “energy” in an office.
One U.S. attorney made a decision to record interviews with targets of investigations without considering the impact on other U.S. attorney offices or the views of the FBI, he said. Another made a poor judgment about whether to pursue the death penalty.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy Asks Why Firings Should Stand / 10:35 a.m. ET
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., questioned Gonzales about his decision, announced today, that he believes the firings of eight U.S. attorneys should stand.
Kennedy asked how Gonzales can make that decision, since he claims his role in the reviews was limited and he acknowledged the process was not rigorous.
Gonzales replied that he has reviewed the relevant documents, and he saw no evidence that the firings were done for improper reasons.
Sen. Arlen Specter Spars Over Gonzales Role / 10:30 a.m. ET
Sen. Arlen Specter sparred with Attorney General Gonzales about misstatements in a press conference concerning his role in the firings of particular U.S. Attorneys.
Specter outlined statements of Gonzales’ deputies about his involvement in meetings to evaluate the U.S. attorneys, and then asked Gonzales if he sticks by his statements that he had only a limited role in the firings.
“Were you involved to a limited extent only?” Specter asked.
“Yes sir,” responded Gonzales.
Gonzales Says Firings Should Stand / 10:05 a.m. ET
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning that the firings of eight U.S. attorneys were justified and should stand.
Sen. Charles Schumer Sees Shift in Burden / 9:58 a.m. ET
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the Senate investigation into the firings, said in his statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the burden of proof has shifted to Attorney General Gonzales due to mounting contradictions and constant coincidences.
The issue is not whether administration had legal power to fire the U.S. attorneys, the issue is whether it exercised its power appropriately, he said.
Sen. Arlen Specter Asks for Review / 9:52 a.m. ET
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement that he would like the attorney general to conduct a case-by-case analysis of all the U.S. attorneys asked to resign.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is not a game of gotcha. This is a matter where we want the facts,” he said.
If a re-examination shows some prosecutors were asked to resign improperly, Gonzales ought to say so and should consider reinstatement, he said.
Leahy Opens Hearing / 9:45 a.m. ET
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took an aggressive stance as he opened a hearing today into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
“Today the Department of Justice is experiencing a crises of leadership” perhaps unrivaled in the history of the department, Leahy said. “The Department of Justice should never be reduced to another political arm of the White House.”
Washington Post’s Document Library on U.S. Attorney Firings
NPR’s Who’s Who of the U.S. Attorney Firing Probe