WASHINGTON - His job in jeopardy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insisted Thursday he played only a minor role in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors. Skeptical senators reacted with disbelief.
"We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright," Sen. Arlen Specter bluntly informed the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
The Pennsylvania Republican said Gonzales' description was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts."
In a long turn in the witness chair, Gonzales said that despite initial administration claims that the prosecutors had been fired for inadequate performance, he approved their dismissals without looking at their job evaluations.
Offering an apology to the eight and their families for their treatment, he said he had "never sought to mislead or deceive the Congress or the American people" on that or any other matter.
Both Senator Leahy and Specter were highly skeptical of Gonzales' testimony. Specter, the ranking Republican on the committee (who has on previous Gonzales appearances while he was Chairman had refused to let him be sworn in) at one point even stated as Gonzales insisted that his involvement was "limited" that either "You are not being candid with us or we have to begin to seriously question your judgement and competence."
Gonzales offered a scenario to the Senators where he claims to have approved the removal of eight U.S. Attorneys based on recommendations primarily compiled by his Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson even though he himself had only cursory knowledge with any reasons for six of those included on the final list and no knowledge of the reasons for two of of the firings at the time of his approval.
Of those attorney's which he had heard complains, such as allegations that Prosecutor Carol Lam in San Diego had not persued enough gun and immigration cases, or complaints from Senator Dominici about Prosecutor David Iglesias in New Mexico, Gonzales claimed neither to have investigated the veracity of these complaints, used the nominal U.S. Attorney evaluation E.A.R.S. system in his determination or even talked to any of the U.S. Attorney's in question as part of a management effort to help them correct any problems in their handling their duties - with the exception of Prosecutor Bogden whom who spoke too after he had been fired.
Update:During his testimony he confirmed that he had spoken not only with Dominici (about whom the Senate has confirmed an ethics investigation) regarding Iglesias, but also with Karl Rove and President Bush. Iglesias vigorously maintains that he was fired for political reasons.
Regarding the removal of H. E. "Bud" Cummins in Arkansas, Gonzales maintained that his resignation was approved in June, prior to the late 2006 purge, and that it's justifications had to do with his own desire to spend time with his family and that fact that their was already another "Well Qualified Candidate" available. That candidate was Karl Rove's former assistant and Monica Goodling's former boss in 2000.
To say that most Senators, which the exception of Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) who did little but praise the beseiged Attorney General's service and qualifications, where highly dubious and visibly angered by some of Gonzales claims would be an understatment. Even Republican Senator Sam Brownback looked nothing but pained as he asked Gonzales to explain the reasons for each firing decision in the most prefunctory way imaginable.
In response to Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) Gonzales vigorously claimed that they persure cases without a partisan bias or regard to party. "We prosecuted Republican Bob Ney." They also prosecuted Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham and rewarded the U.S. Attorney responsible for that successful prosecuting, Carol Lam, with being fired.
Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) reflected what may be the general sentiment even among some Republicans on the committee.
COBURN: Mr. Attorney General, it’s my considered opinion that the exact same standards should be applied to you in how this was handled. It was handled incompetently, the communication was atrocious. It was inconsistent. It’s generous to say that there was misstatements, that’s a generous statement. And I believe you ought to suffer the consequences that these others have suffered, and I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.The Newspaper Op-ed Pages have been even less kind than the Senate. The New York Times editorial page:
Gonzales v. Gonzales
Published: April 20, 2007
If Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had gone to the Senate yesterday to convince the world that he ought to be fired, it’s hard to imagine how he could have done a better job, short of simply admitting the obvious: that the firing of eight United States attorneys was a partisan purge.
Mr. Gonzales came across as a dull-witted apparatchik incapable of running one of the most important departments in the executive branch.
Dana Milbank writes in Maybe Gonzales Won't Recall His Painful Day on the Hill: