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AG Offered a Lifeline on Hill

Smith, Cannon Criticize Probe

In what may be the most spirited public defense of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to date, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee today will demand an end to what one called an “endless piscine expedition” in the U.S. attorneys scandal.

Gonzales will testify before the House committee — for the first time since the scandal broke over the firing of U.S attorneys — as part of a regularly scheduled oversight hearing.

Most of the questions, however, will be focused on the controversial ousting of eight federal prosecutors that has prompted many lawmakers, even some Republicans, to call for Gonzales’ resignation.

But unlike the Senate, where Republicans generally have been tough on Gonzales, House GOPers intend to call for an end to the wide-ranging probe that has consumed the Justice Department since the start of the year.

“We’re going to make it clear it’s time to let the attorney general get back to work,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the ranking member on Judiciary.

Smith has defended Gonzales in the past. He has, for instance, opposed subpoenas for documents and witnesses issued by the committee — though he did vote to grant immunity to Monica Goodling, the former counsel to Gonzales and White House liaison, who resigned from Justice as the scandal flowered. But Smith’s comments at today’s hearing likely will get significantly more attention.

Meanwhile, Gonzales plans to largely stick to statements he made before the Senate committee in April. In a prepared statement, the attorney general says he hopes he can answer all questions so that the committee can move on to other priorities.

Though he said he was not personally responsible for compiling the list of U.S. attorneys to be fired, Gonzales admitted he “should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous.”

Gonzales added that while allegations he intentionally misled Congress are “personally very painful,” his explanations of his role in the process have been “less than precise.”

Smith, in an opening statement provided to Roll Call, criticized Democrats for a “criminalizing of politics,” especially the politics of the Bush administration. He says that by “dragging” Gonzales and his staff before Congress, Democrats may hope to catch them committing perjury that could later be prosecuted.

“As we have gone forward, the list of accusations has mushroomed. But the evidence of genuine wrongdoing has not,” Smith said.

Smith predicted the wide-ranging probe may well end up finding that Gonzales is guilty of “the unremarkable and perfectly legal act of considering politics” in hiring U.S. attorneys.

“You acknowledge that the White House was involved. Of course it was. The political appointees were theirs. So were the political priorities that the Department was asked to focus on,” Smith said.

He wants Gonzales to truthfully answer the committee’s questions and then for the committee to move on if there is nothing further found.

“If there are no fish in this lake, we should reel in our lines of question, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues,” Smith concludes.

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), the ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, which is in charge of the probe, also sounded fed up.

“I hope he’s clear, direct and unapologetic,” Cannon said of Gonzales’ testimony.

“I’m really tired of innuendo and repeated use of the word corruption,” Cannon added. “If [Democrats] can’t produce tomorrow, the story ought to disappear.”

But Democrats seem disinclined to allow what has been an exceedingly fruitful investigation in terms of embarrassment for the Bush administration to dry up after Thursday’s hearing.

“We’re trying to follow the bread crumbs and to determine which of his versions is accurate,” Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) said on Wednesday, referring to what Democrats see as Gonzales’ shifting explanations for the firings.

Democrats intend to focus on who really compiled the hit list of eight prosecutors who were fired in 2006. Gonzales has insisted he was not directly involved in placing names on the list, while former Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson has said he aggregated the list but did not recommend the names that ultimately were placed on it.

Sources said that in private interviews, none of the senior Justice Department officials said they were a big part of the list’s compilation.

“No one is accepting responsibility for it from the Justice Department,” said one Judiciary Committee aide.

Sources also expected that lawmakers were likely to raise questions about recent news of other prosecutors who resigned during the same time frame in places such as Minnesota and Missouri.

In Missouri, a staffer for Sen. Kit Bond (R) contacted the White House counsel’s office in spring 2005 to recommend the dismissal of Kansas City prosecutor Todd Graves. He was replaced by Bradley Schlozman, a former top civil rights attorney at Justice who is now being probed for allegedly hiring people based on their political affiliation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has invited Schlozman to testify on Tuesday.

In Minnesota, Thomas Heffelfinger has insisted he resigned voluntarily. He was replaced by Goodling friend Rachel Paulose.

The names of both Graves and Heffelfinger appeared on an early list of prosecutors to be fired, but their names were later removed.

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