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Gonzales Can't Recall Meetings That Led to Firings

Gonzales Can't Recall Meetings That Led to Attorney Firings

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 19 April 2007

Embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified Thursday before a Senate committee that he could not recall the details of any of the meetings he participated in over the course of two years, in which he and his staff discussed a plan to fire eight US attorneys.

"I have searched my memory," Gonzales said, in response to a question by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) about one meeting Gonzales attended in November 2006 when he discussed the firings. "I have no recollection of the meeting.... I don't remember the contents of this meeting."

Gonzales was visibly defensive as a frustrated group of bipartisan senators pounded the attorney general with some tough questions about his role in firings. Throughout the daylong hearing, Gonzales testified more than 70 times that he could not recall any part of the conversations or details of the backdoor meetings he had with White House officials or members of his staff surrounding the questionable dismissals of the US attorneys. He added that he could not recall whether he had certain conversations over the telephone or in person.

Immediately following Gonzales's testimony, Sen. Chuck Schumer D-New York) said that if Gonzales wanted to restore integrity and credibility to the Department of Justice, he would "look into his heart, he would march over to Pennsylvania Avenue and submit his resignation."

The hearing began Thursday morning with an impassioned opening statement by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, who said the Department of Justice has been "experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its 137-year history.

"There is the growing scandal swirling around the dismissal and replacement of several prosecutors, and persistent efforts to undermine and marginalize career lawyers in the Civil Rights Division and elsewhere in the department," Leahy said. "Since Attorney General Gonzales last appeared before this committee on January 18, we have heard sworn testimony from the former US attorneys forced from office and from his former chief of staff. Their testimony sharply contradicts the accounts of the plan to replace US attorneys that the attorney general provided to this committee under oath in January and to the American people during his March 13 press conference."

In his opening statement, Gonzales said he has "nothing to hide," but senators from both parties said Gonzales's failure to provide answers to their questions about why the attorneys were fired and how the plan to oust them was conceived left them with no choice but to conclude Gonzales was being less than truthful in his testimony, and to demand that he immediately resign.

Gonzales said he did not see how his resignation would solve the matter. He said he stood behind the decision to fire the attorneys because some of them were not tough on voter fraud or immigration issues and other performance-related issues. However, Justice Department documents released over the past few months show that the US attorneys in question had impeccable evaluations from their superiors. Still, if he had to do it over, Gonzales said, he would fire the attorneys again.

"At the end of the day, I know I did not do anything improper," Gonzales said.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Gonzales he believed that the attorney general and Justice Department staffers had fabricated a story about the US attorneys' job performance in order to justify the purge.

Graham added that it was clear to him that some of the [US attorneys] had personality problems with people in the White House, and there was no truth, in his opinion, that the attorneys had performed poorly.

Thursday's testimony was seen as crucial in order for Gonzales to keep his job. Immediately after the committee adjourned, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush still "has full confidence" in Gonzales's ability to perform his job as attorney general.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), however, said Gonzales "made the case that he shouldn't stay."

"He took 20 steps back," Schumer told reporters at the conclusion of Gonzales's testimony. "Republicans agree. He was dodging and weaving. Today's hearing set the White House cause back. It's hard to believe after today's performance the White House would want him to stay on."

Schumer said Gonzales's testimony did not answer lingering questions about why the US attorneys were fired, how they came to be included on a list prior to their dismissal last year, and what role White House political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers played in the ordeal. The White House, citing executive privilege, has refused to allow Rove and Miers to testify under oath and with a public record of their testimony.

"I think it's really important to hear from Rove and Miers," Schumer said. "I think what happened today strengthens the case for Rove and Miers to come forward with transcripts.

Schumer said that, despite the fact that the committee could not get answers to their questions from Gonzales, they will continue to pursue the case.

"One thing I can assure you of is this is not over," Schumer said. "Far from it. There [are] so many loose ends in terms of their privilege argument. The claims of privilege almost never work. If you look at the times [the issue of executive privilege] has gone to court, it is usually resolved in months, not years," meaning the senator will pursue the issue, even if the committee fails to come to an agreement with the White House on Rove's and Miers's testimony and it ends up in court.


Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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