Senate to Seek More Info on Attorney Firings

As the Senate returns from recess, Democratic lawmakers will seek more documents from the Justice Department on the firings of eight U.S. Attorneys. Monica Goodling, a key aide to Attorney General Gonzales, resigned Friday.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There were more developments in the story of the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys at the end of this past week. Friday, Monica Goodling, Attorney General Gonzales' top aide, resigned. And earlier in the week, three top managers in the U.S. attorneys' office in Minneapolis demoted themselves rather than work for the new U.S. attorney there.

Here to fill us in on all of it is NPR's justice reporter Ari Shapiro. First, talk a little bit about Monica Goodling, her resignation, and the fact that she had taken the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify before the Judiciary Committee.

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, she was the White House liaison to the Justice Department. And so she was in a really key position to know how much of a role the White House played in developing the plan to dismiss these eight U.S. attorneys. The Justice Department e-mails describing the plan have her name all over them. So Democrats were really angry that Goodling had decided to take the Fifth and not testify about her role in these firings.

And, in fact, they had sent some e-mails to the Justice Department saying, how can this be that you pledge to cooperate with this investigation and yet, somebody taking the Fifth, saying they won't cooperate in the investigation, is still on your payroll? So that, sort of, solves that problem.

HANSEN: Was her resignation a surprise?

SHAPIRO: Not really. She'd been on a leave of absence since this scandal broke. Because of this conflict, where the DOJ had said they would cooperate and then she took the Fifth, there was this problem that is now solved. In fact, yesterday, a top justice official sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying, now that Monica Goodling has resigned, there's no longer a conflict of interest. We can move forward in this issue. And so the fact that she's not going to be coming back to her job just sort of formalizes what many people had been expecting.

HANSEN: But will this change her decision to take the Fifth? I mean, might she actually testify?

SHAPIRO: Well, the only option remaining, I believe, is for the Justice - the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer her immunity in exchange for her testimony. And in that case, she may still be forced to testify, but so far, her lawyers don't give any indication that they're going to change their position on this. They confirmed that she resigned, but they wouldn't say anything about what might happen next; whether she was encouraged to resign or decided to resign herself, they're keeping pretty quiet on this.

HANSEN: Before we get to the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis, I want to talk about the fact that late last week, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the White House another letter about the scandal. What did it say?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's the latest in a series of these letters that really, sort of, show the Democrats feeling their oats in this. The letters tend to be very pointed, almost snarky. This latest one said, all right, well, the president said there's no apparent evidence of wrongdoing in this scandal; can you tell us what interviews, investigations or other inquiries led the president to reach that conclusion in light of the following? And then this letter listed all of the evidence that the Democrats on the committee believe points to wrongdoing in the scandal.

HANSEN: Three top managers at the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis demoted themselves so they would not have to work for the new U.S. attorney there. What's going on?

SHAPIRO: Well, she's a new U.S. attorney. Her name is Rachel Paulose. She's been there for about a year. She used to work for the deputy attorney general here in Washington, Paul McNulty. And she replaced somebody who'd been there in Minneapolis for a very long time. When she arrived, she brought with her some of the priorities that the attorney general had set forth: child pornography, other sex crimes, things like that.

And so the fact that these three top managers in the office took a demotion rather than work for her may demonstrate some of the tension that we see here between the federal office of the Justice Department in Washington and the local U.S. attorney's offices around the country.

HANSEN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales seems to be keeping a very low profile. Of course, he's going to testify before the Judiciary Committee on April 17. What's he been doing?

SHAPIRO: Well, he's preparing for that testimony. This is his biggest make-or-break moment. You have Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill calling for Gonzales to step down, criticizing the way he's handled the scandal. Even President Bush, Gonzales' closest ally, has criticized the way Gonzales has handled the scandal.

And so this April 17, testimony is going to be his greatest opportunity to convince Congress and the American public that he deserves to remain attorney general despite those mistakes.

HANSEN: NPR's justice reporter, Ari Shapiro. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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