In a testy hearing Thursday morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended his decision to fire eight prosecutors in 2006, but said the process was “nowhere near as rigorous or as structured as it should have been.”
In a long-awaited testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales admitted he “should have been more precise” in explaining his role in the controversial firings.
But he continued to lay much of the blame for the flawed process at the feet of his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, describing his own role in arriving at the firing decisions as “limited.”
“I accepted the decisions made by staff. To my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign,” Gonzales testified.
Nonetheless, Gonzales said he was responsible for signing off on the plan to dismiss the U.S. attorneys for a variety of reasons that he continued to argue fell into the category of “performance-related.”
“I made the decision,” he said.
Liberally using words like “I don’t recall,” Gonzales appeared to stymie Senators when he said he did not remember attending a crucial Nov. 27 meeting attended by the key players in which a memo was distributed outlining the plan to fire the attorneys. Seven of the attorneys were notified of their dismissals on Dec. 7, 2006.
“I have searched my memory. I have no recollection of the meeting,” Gonzales said.
He did admit that the meeting was on his calendar for that day at 9 a.m. “I have no reason not to talk about the meeting,” he insisted. “I’m not suggesting that the meeting did not happen.”
“I’m concerned about your recollection,” replied Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who originally asked the question.
In the hearing’s most contentious moment, Gonzales clashed with Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). With support from Congress for his job hanging in the balance, Gonzales may have alienated important Republican help that he can ill-afford to lose at this moment.
Specter acknowledged the balance beam that Gonzales is walking, calling the hearing a “reconfirmation” for the attorney general.
After Gonzales tersely replied to a query about how well he prepared for the hearing, Specter asked him about a now-infamous March 13 press conference in which Gonzales claimed he was not privy to memos or discussions regarding the firings.
“Were you prepared for that press conference?” Specter charged. Cutting off Gonzales before he could answer, Specter finished, “I don’t think you’re going to win a debate about your preparation.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), expressed doubt about the documentation behind some of the firings. “Most of this is a stretch,” he said.
Another testy exchange took place later in the morning between Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Gonzales. Schumer asked how Gonzales could reconcile a Dec. 19, 2006, e-mail from Sampson that pushed a plan to install interim U.S. Attorney for Arkansas Timothy Griffin without Senate confirmation.
Four days before that, Schumer argued, Gonzales had promised Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), that he was not seeking to circumvent the Senate’s confirmation authority in installing Griffin.
“Did Kyle Sampson put out a memo on his own?” Schumer queried.
“I had rejected the plan. I never considered it,” rebutted Gonzales.
“Whose running the department?” Schumer retorted.
For the first time, Gonzales did give more detailed explanations for the firings of seven of the federal prosecutors. He said that he was “surprised” for instance to find Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden on the list, calling his firing the “closest call.”
As for Carol Lam, the former Southern California prosecutor who secured the guilty plea of ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Gonzales insisted that Lam was “acutely aware” of concerns related to her prosecutions of immigration cases.
But both Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) challenged that statement, saying that neither Sampson nor Lam herself testified that she was informed of such concerns.
Gonzales also defended the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. He admitted that White House adviser Karl Rove last October personally expressed to him concern about a voter fraud probe in three states, including New Mexico.
The Senate ethics committee is investigating whether Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) improperly phoned Iglesias in October 2006 to inquire about the status of a local corruption probe into Democrats. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) made a subsequent phone call about the same case.
Asked whether he believed firing Iglesias was correct, Gonzales answered: “I think that’s a fair question. If a Member of Congress contacts a U.S. attorney to put pressure on them on a specific case, that is very, very serious.”
He also said the fact that Iglesias did not inform Justice of the phone calls was a “serious transgression.”