- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

A combative Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales this morning admitted making imprecise statements about the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year but contended that the firings were justified and performance-based.

“We don’t let partisan politics play a role in the decisions we make in cases,” Mr. Gonzales said during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This notion that somehow we’re playing politics with cases we bring is just not true, and the American people need to understand that.”

Mr. Gonzales, who is fending off calls for his resignation from many Democratic lawmakers and a handful of Republicans, said he has no intention of quitting.

“I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as a leader of this department. Sitting her today, I believe that I can,” Mr. Gonzales said.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, however, told Mr. Gonzales this afternoon that he should resign over his handling of the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.

“The damage to the Justice Department, the attorney general, and you personally has been significant,” Mr. Coburn told Mr. Gonzales. “Communication has been terrible. Management has been terrible.”

“Mistakes have consequences,” Mr. Coburn said.

And one Democratic senator renewed his calls for Mr. Gonzales to resign.

“Anyone who watched this morning’s hearing can only come to one conclusion, and that is Alberto Gonzales should no longer be attorney general,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat.

“The contradictions continue to pile up, the ‘I don’t knows’ to the most important questions … At the core of this [is] the lack of management. He hardly knew what was going on.”

During the first several hours, senators questioned Mr. Gonzales about why the U.S. attorneys were fired, and how intimately he was involved in deciding which U.S. attorneys were to be fired.

Mr. Gonzales clashed with several senators, including Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican.

The packed hearing room also was filled with about a dozen protesters, who grew increasingly vocal as the morning wore on and shouted at Mr. Gonzales as he left for a midday break.

Mr. Gonzales explained the poor performance issues that he said justified firing the prosecutors.

“Although the process was nowhere near as rigorous or structured as it should have been … my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand,” Mr. Gonzales said.

However, Mr. Gonzales admitted that he signed off on the firings with only minimal firsthand knowledge of these reasons, saying he relied on his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and the advice of senior Justice Department officials.

“This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into,” Mr. Gonzales said. “The person who was responsible for compiling the list was Mr. Sampson.”

Mr. Gonzales also admitted that each of the fired prosecutors should have been told by himself or the deputy attorney general that they were being considered for dismissal, and given a chance to redeem themselves.

Democrats countered that many of the fired prosecutors did not even know that top Justice officials had problems with their performance.

In the case of Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney for California’s southern district, Mr. Gonzales said that she was aware of concerns from Republican congressmen about her prosecution of illegal immigration and gun cases.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, was incredulous.

“Is it general policy of the Department of Justice when they have problems with a U.S. attorney to let a Congress member tell them that something’s wrong or … is the department supposed to communicate directly with the U.S. attorney?” Mr. Schumer said.

“I think we should have done a better job in communicating with Ms. Lam. I think we should have done a better job at communicating with all of these United States attorneys,” Mr. Gonzales said.

But Democratic and Republican senators were skeptical that the prosecutors were removed for the performance-based reasons that Mr. Gonzales listed.

“Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “I think it’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them.”

“I do believe this; that you never sanctioned anybody being fired because they wouldn’t play politics a particular way,” Mr. Graham said.

Democrats were less sure, and have questioned for weeks whether or not some of the fired prosecutors were removed because they were prosecuting Republican lawmakers for corruption or not prosecuting Democrats.

Even Republicans on the Senate panel expressed doubt about Mr. Gonzales’ leadership at the outset of the hearing.

“Your ability to lead the Department of Justice is in question,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “I wish that were not so, but I think it is.”

Mr. Specter called the hearing “a reconfirmation hearing.”

“This is as important a hearing that I can recall, short of a Supreme Court justice nomination hearing,” Mr. Specter said.

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