Goodling's 'Fifth' No Win for White House

Attorneys for Monica Goodling announced earlier this week that she would take the Fifth Amendment to protect against incriminating herself while testifying under oath.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One person Congress is not hearing from today is Monica Goodling. She's a top adviser to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and she's the Justice Department's liaison to the White House. Her attorneys say she won't talk because she's invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

NPR's David Greene tells us a little more about her.

DAVID GREENE: All along, the Bush administration has bragged about how it's cooperating with Congress in this investigation. So when Monica Goodling decided last week not to cooperate, this became something of an image problem. Even her first name is inconvenient. Nobody in the administration could have been happy with this NBC News clip.

(Soundbite of NBC News broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Congress could try to force Monica Lewinsky - Monica Goodling rather, to testify by giving her immunity.

GREENE: Goodling comes up a lot in the e-mail traffic surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. And at least one Justice Department official has accused her of holding back on some facts when the Justice Department was preparing to report to Congress. Goodling's defense lawyer, John Dowd, has complained that some Democrats are assuming wrongdoing and may be setting a legal trap for his client. Dowd even compared Goodling to Lewis Libby, the former White House aide who testified to a grand jury about a CIA leak and ended up perjuring himself.

Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania seemed to buy Dowd's arguments.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): I can understand the sense of a potential witness in not wanting to be ensnared here about the kind of a proceeding where conclusions have already been reached.

GREENE: But Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy acted almost perplexed by the Libby comparison because, he said…

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I would have assumed Ms. Goodling already - as she has been a very high-ranking member of the Department of Justice, would come in and tell the truth.

GREENE: Goodling is 33. She attended Messiah College in Pennsylvania and she got her legal training at Regent University, a religious institution founded by Pat Robertson. She came to the Justice Department under Former Attorney General John Ashcroft and began a quick rise. To get some litigation experience, she spent a little time in the U.S. attorney's office for the eastern district of Virginia. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McBride once served as an assistant U.S. attorney there and said the office is used as a training ground for young Justice staffers.

Mr. ANDREW MCBRIDE (Former Federal Prosecutor): They generally work in the magistrate's court, prosecuting everything from traffic offenses up to any kind of crime committed in any of the public parks that are within the jurisdiction of the Park Police.

GREENE: McBride, who was also a senior Justice Department official under the first President Bush, said there's always a political crowd inside the department, staffers who are young, well-connected and who can rub career attorneys the wrong way.

Mr. MCBRIDE: There's a natural tension when you go to a meeting with the career people and you say, look, you're not doing this right according to the attorney general. You know, they naturally chafe at that and their reaction is, you know, I've been here 20 years and some snot nose kid is telling me what to do.

GREENE: Goodling, who took an indefinite leave from her job last week, didn't return NPR's phone calls. And when we asked her attorney if he'd speak about her or suggest anyone who might, he wrote back two words. No thanks.

Now, Monica Goodling may well talk to Congress if only to say…

Lieutenant Colonel OLIVER NORTH (U.S. Marine Corps): Despite my very strong desire to provide Congress with my recollection of the facts pertaining to this matter, counsel has advised me that I…

Mr. KENNETH LAY (Former Chairman, Enron Corporation): After agonizing consideration, I cannot disregard my counsel's instruction.

Ms. BETH DOZORETZ (Former Finance Chair, Democratic National Committee): Upon the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer that question.

GREENE: That was Oliver North, a central figure in Iran-Contra, the late Kenneth Lay, former chairman of Enron, and Beth Dozoretz, a Democratic Party official brought in to speak about a pardon by former President Bill Clinton.

Now, North was granted immunity, eventually testified, and because his testimony was so publicized, his convictions were overturned. Sara Binder studies Congress at the Brookings Institution. She says there are those like North who benefit from pleading the Fifth.

Ms. SARA BINDER (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Others, it affects your reputation. And ultimately, if you are involved in legal proceedings, then anything can go, obviously.

GREENE: And Goodling's legal future remains uncertain. It's possible she could be granted immunity and eventually talk to Congress. For now, Binder says, one thing is certain about Goodling's decision to invoke the Fifth.

Ms. BINDER: It will draw more and more public and media attention to what has gone on within the Justice Department.

GREENE: In other words, even if Democrats aren't getting Goodling to talk yet, she may be just what they were looking for.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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