Gonzales to stand by firings

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales faces angry Senate Democrats tomorrow, he will acknowledge that he made a broad range of mistakes in the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys last year and will apologize to them and their families, but he also will insist that even though the White House was originally behind the terminations, none of the prosecutors was fired for political reasons.

In what has been described as a make-or-break appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the nation's top federal law enforcement officer will say:

"I know that I did not, and would not, ask for a resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain. I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason."

He also will tell the committee: "I firmly believe that these dismissals were appropriate."

In an unusual move, the Justice Department released Gonzales' prepared testimony yesterday, two days before the hearing.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has been leading the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the controversy, reacted quickly to the 24-page statement, saying that it "does not advance his cause at all."

The terminations of the eight U.S. attorneys have ignited a firestorm in Washington, with critics charging that political pressure was behind the dismissals. Democrats, who now hold the majority in both houses of Congress, have mounted a broadening investigation and held hearings not only into why the prosecutors were abruptly fired, but also into new allegations of missing e-mails at the White House, including some from political strategist Karl Rove that could show his involvement in the terminations.

A number of Democrats have called for Gonzales to step down, their cries echoed by some Republicans.

Sunday, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Gonzales "ought to consider" reinstating the eight prosecutors.

More significant, he warned that Gonzales' performance tomorrow could decide his future at the Justice Department.

On CBS' Face the Nation, Vice President Dick Cheney described Gonzales as "a good man" and added: "I have every confidence in him."

But when asked whether the White House had a credibility problem due to the scandal, Cheney said: "Obviously, we've got issues we need to work through. The attorney general will be doing that this week with respect to the U.S. attorney question."

On the Democratic side, Schumer dismissed Gonzales' prepared statement as heavy on rhetoric but lean on facts.

The "only important theme" in the prepared statement, Schumer said, was that Gonzales "points the finger of responsibility" at D. Kyle Sampson, who was the attorney general's chief of staff. Sampson resigned March 12, the day before the release of e-mails between Justice Department and White House officials describing a lengthy campaign to get rid of prosecutors who had lost favor among administration officials.

March 29, Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that while he had helped to coordinate the firings, he did not make the decisions about who would go. He also said that despite the attorney general's statements earlier in March that he had not been involved in the discussions, Gonzales had participated in several meetings, including one 10 days before the dismissals were announced.

From a public-relations standpoint, the release of Gonzales' statement two days before the hearing allowed the department to get its position out well before the much-anticipated showdown. In addition, an op-ed article written by Gonzales, titled "Nothing Improper," was published in yesterday's Washington Post.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that there was no hidden agenda in the early release of the statement.

"The Congress requested in a letter that we provide the written testimony 48 hours in advance of his hearing," he said. "We complied with that request by sending it to them at 9 a.m. this morning. Since we knew they would release it to the press, we also sent it out."

In his prepared statement, Gonzales declares that "I have nothing to hide" and pledges to assure Congress and the American public that "nothing improper occurred here."

He calls each of the dismissed prosecutors "fine" lawyers and "dedicated" professionals.

"I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle, and I am sorry for my missteps that have helped fuel the controversy," the statement says.

Indeed, he is often contrite.

"I made mistakes in not ensuring that these U.S. attorneys received more dignified treatment," he says. "Others within the Department of Justice also made mistakes. As far as I know, these were honest mistakes of perception and judgment and not intentional acts of misconduct."

Gonzales goes on to say that he did not "intentionally" make false statements earlier this year about his involvement. He says that he "misspoke" at a March 13 news conference when he said he was not involved in discussions about the removals. That statement was contradicted by documents showing he attended a lengthy meeting in advance of the firings.

"Of course I knew about the process," Gonzales says. But he adds that his earlier statement "certainly was not in any way an attempt to mislead the American people."

He then personally singles out "the sacrifices" of all eight fired attorneys.

"This process could have been handled much better," Gonzales says, "and for that I want to apologize."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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