Lawmakers sparred Thursday with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over whether House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) was inappropriately identified by Democrats as the “target” of a federal investigation once led by former U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang.
“The department has not confirmed that Mr. Lewis is a target” of any probe, said Gonzales in response to a flurry of questions over why Yang resigned her prosecutor post in October 2006.
The issue of Yang’s departure was just one of many raised in a contentious House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday. It was the first time Gonzales has appeared before the House committee investigating why eight — and now nine, including Kansas City prosecutor Todd Graves who was asked to leave in January 2006, five months earlier than the others — prosecutors were fired last year.
But a mini-drama also took place over the removal from the hearing room of protesters with the group CODEPINK who carried signs and wore T-shirts with statements such as “Fire Gonzales” and “Arrest Gonzales.”
Unlike Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who faced similar raucous protesters at a recent hearing of his panel, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and his staff booted the protesters.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) pressed Gonzales on why former White House counsel Harriet Miers had targeted Yang for dismissal. The New York Times reported last week that former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson privately told Congressional investigators that Miers was interested in removing Yang and Bud Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Arkansas.
But Gonzales, who has heaped praised on Yang as a strong prosecutor, testified that she left her post voluntarily for financial reasons.
“I think that Ms. Miers may have known about Ms. Yang’s concern about remaining on the job because of financial reasons,” Gonzales responded.
A former Los Angeles prosecutor investigating ties between Lewis and lobbyist ex-Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.), Yang resigned to become a partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She received a $1.5 million signing bonus for her new job.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law who has led much of the probe, asked Gonzales whether he was disturbed by the “appearance of a conflict of interest” because Gibson Dunn represents Lewis.
Gonzales replied that he assumed Yang had “recused” herself from any business involving the Lewis investigation.
“As far as I know, nothing about the investigation has been impacted or affected in any way” by Yang’s departure, Gonzales testified.
Reps. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah) charged Sánchez with improperly identifying Lewis as a target of an investigation, which implies that someone is a focus of a legal probe and may soon be indicted.
Sanchez said she did not recall using the word “target” and agreed to withdraw it from the record if it was used.
Lewis spokesman Jim Specht said he had no comment about Thursday’s Judiciary proceedings.
Lewis has “never contacted anybody in the administration or the Justice Department regarding any ongoing investigation,” Specht said. “They’ve never contacted him either.”
Republicans shot back at the Lewis questions by asking Gonzales why the Justice Department had not yet indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) pointed out that a former businessman and another ex-staffer to Jefferson had pleaded guilty to bribing the Democratic lawmaker, but that Jefferson himself has not been charged with anything.
“My constituents are asking me when something is going to happen,” Sensenbrenner said. “This is kind of embarrassing. Everybody’s talking about it except you.”
Gonzales responded that he simply could not talk about it.
Gonzales also said that Graves, the former Kansas City U.S. attorney who resigned in March 2006, was not asked to leave as part of the same “process” that yielded the ousters of eight other prosecutors later last year.
According to The Washington Post, Graves said he was asked to step aside in January 2006 by Michael Battle, then the head of the executive office for U.S. attorneys, to make way for someone else. At about the same time, Graves name appeared on a list compiled by Sampson of prosecutors to be fired.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) intervened to ask that Graves, the brother of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), be allowed to stay on until he completed a particular case; the request was denied. But apparently unknown to the Senator, his counsel contacted the White House counsel’s office in spring 2005 to recommend his dismissal.
Graves had clashed with his superiors at Justice about signing on to a voter fraud investigation. He was replaced by Bradley Schlozman, a former top Justice lawyer in the civil rights division and backer of a controversial voter-fraud lawsuit.