MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee pressed for more answers today about the mass firing of U.S. attorneys. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the committee but as NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, reports he offered little new information.
NINA TOTENBERG: Gonzales performed the same semi-grabble that he did three weeks ago, when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee: He admitted the firings had been mishandled but insisted they were entirely proper. Committee Chairman John Conyers quickly aimed his questioning not at Gonzales but at the suspicion that it was the White House that was calling the shots on the firings, and doing it for illegitimate partisan purposes.
Who made up this list, Conyers asked? That question hangs over everything. Gonzales demurred, saying he had instructed his chief of staff to collect names.
Senator JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): Mr. Attorney General, you're the one that is here at the hearing, tell me, just tell me, who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why? Tell me something.
Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): What was presented to me was a recommendation that I understood to be the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership of the department.
Sen. CONYERS: Okay. In other words, you don't know.
TOTENBERG: Democrats also pressed Gonzales about news reports of yet another U.S. attorney who said he was forced to resign — Todd Graves, the U.S. attorney in Missouri. Attorney General Gonzales has repeatedly testified that only eight federal prosecutors were asked to leave, but Graves is the ninth.
Today, Gonzales denied that Graves was forced out because he had opposed a Justice Department voter-fraud prosecution brought shortly before the election, a case that has since been thrown out of court for lack of evidence.
Gonzales seemed more relaxed at today's hearing, probably because committee Republicans, unlike their Senate counterparts, seemed eager to play defense for the embattled attorney general. Some, like California's Dan Lundgren, argued that there was nothing wrong with the firings.
Representative DAN LUNDGREN (Republican, California): 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.
TOTENBERG: And others, like Wisconsin's James Sensenbrenner, sought to change the subject to terrorism, or the investigation of a Democratic congressman, William Jefferson, whose home was raided two years ago and $90,000 in cash was found in the freezer. When Sensenbrenner asked will there be an indictment or statements that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Mr. GONZALES: Congressman, you know, I cannot talk about that.
Representative JAMES SENSENBRENNER (Republican, Wisconsin): Well, everybody is talking about it except you.
TOTENBERG: The Democrats, however, kept their focus on the firings. Congressman Mel Watt asked in particular about the fired U.S. attorney in Seattle, John McKay. Congressman 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.
Was he fired, Watt asked, because he had refused GOP requests to bring voter-fraud charges in a closely contested gubernatorial race? Attorney General Gonzales denied that, but he conceded there was concern about McKay's voter-fraud record.
Watt said another explanation from McKay's firing offered by Gonzales' former chief of staff, was that there was concerned in the department that McKay was too aggressive in pursuing the murderers of a federal prosecutor.
Representative MEL WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): If that was among the reasons, would you agree with Mr. McKay, who has characterized this as, I'm going to quote what he exactly what he said, "the idea that I was pushing to hard to investigate the assassination of a federal prosecutor - it's mind-numbing," closed quote. If it's true, it's just immoral, and if it's false, then the idea that the Department of Justice would use the death of Tom Wales to cover up what they did is just unconscionable.
Mr. GONZALES: I'm not aware the department, however, is using that as a reason or excuse…
Rep. WATT: That was - that was an excuse that was advanced initially and that's the problem here, Mr. Attorney General. There are so many different excuses advanced at different times.
TOTENBERG: As for McKay, speaking today on NPR member station KUOW, he had this to say about Gonzales not knowing who added his name or others to the firing list and why.
Mr. JOHN McKAY (Former U.S. Attorney): 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.
TOTENBERG: And the White House is refusing to provide witnesses to testify under oath or to have the witnesses' testimony taken down in writing.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.