WASHINGTON - A top assistant to White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove appeared last week before the federal grand jury investigating possible criminal wrongdoing by the Bush administration in the exposing of a CIA operative, a person familiar with the case said yesterday.
The interest in Susan Ralston, Rove's longtime executive assistant, was unexplained, but it comes as special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has been focusing on differences in witness statements made to federal agents and the grand jury investigating who revealed the identity of Valerie Plame.
Ralston's appearance Friday followed grand jury testimony last month by Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who recounted a conversation he had with Rove in July 2003 in which Rove alluded to Plame without mentioning her by name.
Cooper and columnist Robert Novak subsequently wrote articles identifying Plame after talking with administration officials.
It can be a violation of federal law to disclose the name of a covert CIA agent.
Some people close to the case have said they believe Fitzgerald has begun focusing on whether other laws were broken, such as perjury, obstruction of justice or making "misstatements" to investigators.
Cooper's version of his conversation with Rove differed from the version Rove has offered investigators. Some people close to the case said Fitzgerald apparently was seeking to resolve the differences in the two accounts.
A person familiar with Cooper's testimony said Ralston's name did not come up during the reporter's grand jury appearance. That indicates Fitzgerald might be interested in her testimony for other reasons.
Ralston could not be reached for comment.
ABC News, which first disclosed Ralston's grand jury appearance, also reported that former Rove aide Israel "Izzy" Hernandez appeared before the grand jury Friday.
Fitzgerald, who has been leading the investigation since December 2003, has not indicated when he intends to be done. The grand jury that has been hearing testimony is set to expire in October, although it could be renewed.
Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, declined to comment about Ralston's appearance. He has said repeatedly that Rove has been assured he is not a target of the investigation and that investigators have never challenged the veracity of any statements Rove has made to them over the course of the investigation.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.