Gonzales Gets Gentler Reception in House Visit

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As Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gives a House panel his side of U.S. attorney firings, his answers stay the same. But questions from the House are not as harsh as those he faced at the Senate.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

And I'm Rebecca Roberts. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced another day of questions on Capitol Hill yesterday about the U.S. attorney scandal. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, it was not quite as rough as the last time he went to Congress.

ARI SHAPIRO: The attorney general's last testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was stunning for its bipartisanship. Republicans and Democrats pilloried the attorney general. Yesterday's hearing on the House side was a little more typical. Republicans never got much tougher than this, from Lamar Smith of Texas.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): Have you ever intended to mislead or misinform Congress through any of your statements or testimony about the U.S. attorneys matter?

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): Of course not. Now, I realize I had been (unintelligible) in some of my statements to the press, overly broad, perhaps, in my zeal to come out and defend the department.

SHAPIRO: But Democrats complained that after months of investigating, they still don't know why some of the U.S. attorneys were fired or who put their names on the list. Democrat Robert Wexler of Florida focused on New Mexico's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias.

Representative DAVID WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): With all due respect, Mr. Attorney General, you won't tell the American people who put Mr. Iglesias on the list to be fired. It's a national secret, isn't it?

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: Congressman, if I knew the answer to that question, I would have provided you the answer.

Rep. WEXLER: Ah.

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: But I've not spoken with the individuals...

Rep. WEXLER: OK, so you don't know who put it on the list, Mr. Iglesias. Why was Mr. Iglesias put on the list by this mystery person?

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said he wasn't surprised to see Iglesias on the list because he knew that Republican Senator Pete Domenici was unhappy with the prosecutor. Iglesias has said that Senator Domenici pressured him to indict Democrats before the 2006 election. The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into whether Domenici broke a Senate rule.

Domenici and Gonzales talked about Iglesias three times. The conversations focused on voter fraud and public corruption. At the hearing yesterday, Democrat Adam Schiff of California noted that after Gonzales and Domenici talked about Iglesias, after Gonzales says he lost confidence in the prosecutor, the attorney general met Iglesias in New Mexico.

Representative ADAM SCHIFF (Democrat, California): You said not a word about losing confidence with him, did you?

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: I don't recall mentioning that. No, sir.

Rep. SCHIFF: In fact, you were there to announce you were providing resources not for corruption cases, not for voter fraud cases, but for immigration cases, something you never said Senator Domenici raised with you.

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: I don't recall Senator Domenici raising with me concerns about immigration cases.

Rep. SCHIFF: So nothing you did or said in July of '06 during your meeting with Mr. Iglesias is consistent with what you're saying now about your conversations with Senator Domenici.

SHAPIRO: The panel also grilled Gonzales about shifting explanations for why John McKay was fired. McKay was the U.S. attorney in Washington state, where he resisted Republican pressure to charge Democrats after a close gubernatorial election.

Originally, the Justice Department said McKay was fired because he complained to the press about an information sharing system. Then, Justice Department documents showed that McKay was slated for dismissal before he said anything to the press. Justice officials then said McKay was fired because he devoted too many resources to investigating the murder of one of the career prosecutors in his office. Democrat Mel Watt of North Carolina asked the attorney general…

Representative MEL WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): Would you agree that it would be immoral and unconscionable for you all to be firing somebody because they were investigating the death of one of their own staff people?

Atty. Gen. GONZALES: That's a crime that we have an obligation to of course investigate and prosecute those responsible for it. I'm not aware that the department, however, is using that as a reason or excuse...

Rep. WATT: Well, you obviously haven't listened to the testimony of some of the people in the department, then.

SHAPIRO: McKay and Iglesias are well-worn territory by now, but yesterday a ninth U.S. attorney became part of the debate. Todd Graves in Missouri recently said he was forced out. His replacement, Brad Schlozman, was a Bush administration political insider, and he brought a controversial voter fraud case that a judge threw out for lack of evidence. Democrat Linda Sanchez of California pointed out that Gonzales has repeatedly said that only eight U.S. attorneys were fired.

Representative LINDA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): Are there any more U.S. attorneys that we should know about that were forced out?

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said Missouri's U.S. attorney was not part of the same process that led to the other dismissals. And he defended the voter fraud prosecution, saying the Justice Department is still deciding whether to appeal the judge's ruling.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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House Panel Presses Gonzales on Attorney Firings

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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. i

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee pressed for more answers Thursday about the mass firing of U.S. attorneys last year. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the committee but offered little new information.

Gonzales' performance was much the same as the one he gave three weeks ago, when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee: He admitted the firings had been mishandled but insisted that they were entirely proper.

Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) quickly aimed his questioning at the suspicion that the White House called the shots on the firings — for illegitimate partisan purposes.

When Conyers asked him who drew up the list of attorneys to be dismissed, Gonzales demurred, saying he had instructed his chief of staff to collect names.

"What was presented to me was a recommendation that I understood to be the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership of the department," Gonzales said.

"OK. In other words, you don't know," Conyers replied.

Democrats also pressed Gonzales about news reports of yet another federal prosecutor who has said he was forced to resign — Todd Graves, the U.S. attorney in Missouri. Gonzales has repeatedly testified that only eight federal prosecutors were asked to leave, but Graves is the ninth.

On Thursday, Gonzales denied that Graves was forced out because he had opposed a Justice Department voter-fraud prosecution brought shortly before the 2006 election. That case has since been thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

Gonzales seemed more relaxed at Thursday's hearing, probably because committee Republicans, unlike their Senate counterparts, seemed eager to play defense for the embattled attorney general. Some, like Dan Lundgren of California, argued that there was nothing wrong with the firings.

"We're acting around this place like U.S. attorneys are the product of the Immaculate Conception, and once they've been created they cannot be undone," Lundgren said.

Other Republicans, such as Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner sought to change the subject to terrorism, or to the investigation of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson. Jefferson's home was raided two years ago and $90,000 in cash was found in the freezer. Sensenbrenner asked whether an indictment in Jefferson's case was forthcoming.

The Democrats, however, kept their focus on the firings. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) asked in particular about John McKay, the fired U.S. attorney in Seattle. Watt noted that the Justice Department first said that McKay had been fired because of the way he pushed an information-sharing system. But newly acquired documents show that McKay's name was on the firing list long before that incident.

Watt asked whether McKay was fired because he had refused GOP requests to bring voter-fraud charges in a closely contested gubernatorial race. Gonzales denied that charge, but he conceded there was concern about McKay's voter-fraud record.

Watt said that Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has put forward another explanation for the McKay firing: that the Justice Department was concerned McKay was too aggressive in pursuing the murderers of a federal prosecutor.

McKay, meanwhile, has offered his own theory about Gonzales' inability to say who added his or other U.S. attorneys' names to the list of those to be fired.

"If no senior Justice Department official will take responsibility — or credit, depending on how you're looking at it — then it can only come from one place, and that would be the White House," McKay told NPR member station KUOW on Thursday.

The White House, for its part, is refusing to provide witnesses to testify under oath and with transcripts.

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