- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday defended the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year, but was harshly criticized by several conservative Republican senators during a daylong hearing.

“The best way to put this behind us is your resignation,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, told Mr. Gonzales during the five-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I believe there’s consequences to mistakes,” Mr. Coburn said. “The reputation of the attorney general’s office has been tarnished and brought into question.”

The ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Gonzales’ “credibility has been impaired” but that he would not call for the attorney general’s resignation. “The issue of whether he stays or goes belongs to the president and to the attorney general,” he said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said President Bush “was pleased with the attorney general’s testimony” and continues to have “full confidence” in Mr. Gonzales.

The tone of the hearing was set in the first moments during a prickly exchange between Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Specter.

When Mr. Specter referred to the many hours Mr. Gonzales reportedly had spent preparing for the hearing, Mr. Gonzales interrupted: “I prepare for all my hearings, senator.”

Mr. Specter shot back, “Do you prepare for all your press conferences?” He was referring to Mr. Gonzales’ public explanation of the firings on March 13 that other Justice officials have contradicted.

Mr. Gonzales said yesterday that some of his statements have been “over-broad.”

“It does appear your statements … incorrectly minimized your involvement in this matter,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican.

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

Mr. Gonzales acknowledged that he mishandled the firings and his public explanation of the firings, but maintained that nothing improper or illegal occurred.

“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.

He said he should have notified the prosecutors about concerns over their performance and given them a chance to redeem themselves.

Mr. Gonzales maintained, however, that the prosecutors were aware of performance concerns that eventually led to their dismissals.

In the case of Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney for California’s Southern District, Mr. Gonzales said she was aware of concerns from Republicans in Congress about her prosecution of illegal border crossings and gun cases.

“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?” asked Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Both 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.”

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

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