A top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the firing of eight federal prosecutors.
Monica Goodling, who serves as the Justice Department's liaison to the White House and counselor to the attorney general, notified the committee Monday that she will not be testifying about the scandal.
Justice Department documents show that Goodling helped determine which prosecutors should be fired. The documents also showed that she worked closely with White House political operative Karl Rove to remove the United States attorney in Arkansas so that one of Rove's aides could take the job.
As White House liaison for the Justice Department, she'd be able to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee whether top Justice Department officials knew they were giving false testimony when they said that the White House was minimally involved in the removal of the U.S. attorneys.
Goodling, who is on leave from her position, sent an affidavit to the committee saying that she had "become aware that a senior justice department official had blamed her for his false testimony, in a conversation he had with Sen. Chuck Schumer."
Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told him that Goodling failed to give him pertinent facts as she briefed him before his testimony.
Goodling's lawyer, John Dowd, wrote a letter to the committee that said its hostile and questionable environment would put Goodling in legal jeopardy for "even her most truthful and accurate testimony." And he cited the case of Vice President Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby as a case in point. Libby testified before a grand jury instead of taking the fifth, and then found himself convicted of perjury.
The committee, of course, could grant immunity from prosecution to Goodling in order to get her testimony. But she would likely have to offer up some juicy information in return.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended himself Monday in an NBC interview, asserting that he had not misled Congress or the public when he declared that he had not participated in discussions or seen documents about the firings.
Recently released Justice Department e-mails show that Gonzales attended a one-hour meeting on the topic shortly before the dismissals were implemented.
"I was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign," he told NBC.
Goodling's invocation of the Fifth Amendment rattled Republicans on Capitol Hill. Adam Putnam, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and a staunch Bush supporter, had this to say about Gonzales: "I believe that this tornado that he's in the center of is largely of his own making, and I believe [it] does undermine his ability to continue to serve the president in the way that you would expect."
Republicans joined Democrats in the House on Monday to overwhelmingly repeal the attorney general's power to appoint U.S. attorneys when there's a vacancy, a provision slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act last year. That provision is what made the placement of Rove's aide in Arkansas possible.
The Senate already passed the same appeal and the president has already indicated he will not veto it.