WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended statements Thursday that he was separate from the details of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys – a matter he said rested with his former chief of staff,D. Kyle Sampson.
In a much-anticipated and once-delayed hearing,senators grilled Gonzales over why he claimed he did not have more involvement in the process of naming attorneys in need of replacement. Gonzales responded that he decided on the now-questionable firings based singularly on his trust for Sampson.
Reflecting recent polls,many of the senators questioned if Gonzales is still capable of operating the Department of Justice.
“I cannot think of any time where I have been more concerned for the system of political justice in this country,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy,D-Vt.,chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Specifically,senators lodged complaints over the way the U.S. attorneys were notified of their dismissals,the creation of a new law to circumvent congressional approval of new appointees and Gonzales' November meeting with Sen. Mark Pryor,D-Ark.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer,D-N.Y.,quoted Pryor's statement on the floor of the Senate that he felt he was lied to by the attorney general about how the law was to be used.
Gonzales defended himself,saying the thousands of documents he turned over to Congress showed his office did nothing “improper” in firing the attorneys. He called the controversy swirling around him “an undignified Washington spectacle” Sunday in an op-ed column in the Washington Post.
Asked if he would fire the eight attorneys today despite all that has happened,Gonzales stood by his decision,adding he would only use a different process.
“One of the things I would have done was to be more respectful,” Gonzales said,contacting the attorneys personally to alert them,”a phone call,at least.”
The only Republican senator to defend Gonzales was Sen. Orrin Hatch,R-Utah. He said Gonzales has a large department with many responsibilities,implying the attorney general has to rely on others he trusts.
President Bush said in a statement that he was pleased with Gonzales' testimony.
Several Republicans went against the party line and called for Gonzales to resign
“I think this has been handled in a very incompetent manner,and I believe most people,I don't care which side of the aisle they are,would agree with me,” said Tom Coburn,R-Okla. “U.S. attorneys' reputations that are involved have been harmed,the confidence of U.S. attorneys around this country is damaged,the reputation of the attorney general's office has been tarnished. … The best way to put this behind us is your resignation.”
Gonzales testified that one of the fired attorneys,Carol Lam of San Diego,was “acutely” aware of complaints regarding her handling of immigration enforcement.
Gonzales' statements conflicted with what Sampson told the committee last month. Sampson said no one from the Justice Department talked to Lam about immigration enforcement.
Committee members said Gonzales and Sampson seemed not to be working together,although they should have been.
Schumer criticized Gonzales for allowing an “astonishingly perverse plan” that bypassed congressional approval for attorney appointments,even though the attorney general expressed his disapproval over the plan to Sampson on several occasions.
“Quite frankly,I thought it was a dumb idea,” Gonzales said.
Schumer said Gonzales met with Pryor on Dec. 15 to discuss replacing a U.S. attorney and allegedly told Pryor that the attorney would not be replaced without congressional approval. But on Dec. 19,Sampson sent out an e-mail detailing the new law to Justice Department staff.
“If defies credulity that your chief of staff – four days after you tell somebody you're going one way – goes exactly the opposite way and says that you never rejected the plan when you say you did,” Schumer said. He later characterized Gonzales' and Sampson's relationship as that of “Abbot and Costello.”
Gonzales had been scheduled to testify Tuesday,but the hearing was postponed because of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Reporters filled the tables behind Gonzales,and photographers jostled for position on the floor when they weren't shooting from the pillbox-shaped retractable windows above the floor.
Protesters interrupted the hearing several times,drawing five censures from Leahy. They laughed as Gonzales' “I don't knows” piled up – Schumer estimated Gonzales said it about 100 times – and yelled “fire the liar” during recesses.
“The moment I believe I cannot be effective,I will resign,” Gonzales said.