Thursday, March 15, 2007
Keystone Cops: Alberto Gonzales is either a Criminal, or Criminally Inept.
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007; A01
In testimony on Jan. 18, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department had no intention of avoiding Senate input on the hiring of U.S. attorneys.
Just a month earlier, D. Kyle Sampson, who was then Gonzales's chief of staff, laid out a plan to do just that. In an e-mail, he detailed a strategy for evading Arkansas Democrats in installing Tim Griffin, a former GOP operative and protege of presidential adviser Karl Rove, as the U.S. attorney in Little Rock.
"We should gum this to death," Sampson wrote to a White House aide on Dec. 19. "[A]sk the senators to give Tim a chance . . . then we can tell them we'll look for other candidates, ask them for recommendations, evaluate the recommendations, interview their candidates, and otherwise run out the clock. All of this should be done in 'good faith,' of course."
The conflict between documents released this week and previous administration statements is quickly becoming the central issue for lawmakers who are angry about the way Gonzales and his aides handled the coordinated firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Democrats and Republicans are demanding to know whether Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and other Justice officials misled them in sworn testimony over the past two months. Yesterday, Republican Sen. John E. Sununu (N.H.) joined a handful of Democrats in calling on President Bush to fire his attorney general and longtime friend.
Gonzales has declined to address the apparent contradictions in detail, saying only that he was unaware of the specifics of the plan that Sampson was orchestrating.
The inconsistencies between Justice's positions and the documents are numerous. On Feb. 23, for example, a Justice legislative affairs aide wrote to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that the department "was not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin." But internal Justice e-mails show that "getting him appointed is important" to Rove and was closely monitored by political aides in the White House.
Last week, senior Justice official William E. Moschella told a House Judiciary subcommittee that the White House was not consulted on the firings until the end of the process.
But the documents released this week show that the plan began more than two years ago at the White House counsel's office, which initially suggested firing all 93 U.S. attorneys. Gonzales rejected that idea, and Sampson wrote back in January 2006 that Justice and the White House should "work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys."
Schumer argued this week that Sampson "may well have obstructed justice" by not disclosing his communications to Congress and other senior Justice officials, who had said for weeks that the White House had only a limited role in the removals. "There has been misleading statement after misleading statement, and these have been deliberately misleading statements," Schumer said yesterday.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also called yesterday for investigations by Congress and a special prosecutor looking at "whether any official has testified falsely in violation of federal perjury and obstruction of justice statutes."
Legal scholars noted yesterday that prosecutions in connection with lying to or misleading Congress are uncommon.
Sampson, who resigned on Monday as the e-mails and memos came to light, has hired a lawyer, Bradford A. Berenson, who worked under Gonzales in the White House counsel's office from 2001 to 2003. Sampson also worked there during most of that time.
Most lawmakers have stopped short of alleging any illegality, and Gonzales implicitly laid the blame for providing "incomplete information" to Congress on Sampson.
"I regret the fact that information was not adequately shared with individuals within the Department of Justice and that, consequently, information was shared with the Congress that was incomplete," Gonzales said during a brief news conference Tuesday, in which he conceded that "mistakes were made" in the firings.
McNulty, Moschella and other Justice officials were enraged when they found out about the communications last Thursday, when Sampson produced the documents, according to officials who declined to speak for attribution in discussing internal Justice matters.
Many Democrats have focused on the Feb. 6 testimony by McNulty, who appeared before the Senate judiciary panel for several hours to mount a strong defense of the legality and propriety of the prosecutor firings.
McNulty told the committee that there was no plan to use Gonzales's appointment powers to evade Senate oversight, that accusations of "politicizing" the hiring and firing process were "completely contrary to my daily experience," and that the dismissals of everyone but the Arkansas prosecutor were purely "performance-related."
Each of those contentions is called into question by the 143 pages of internal e-mails and other documents turned over to the House and the Senate on Tuesday. Most had been sent or received by Sampson.
Political considerations, for example, figured prominently in who was chosen to be fired. Sampson ranked all 93 U.S. attorneys in part on whether they "exhibited loyalty" to Bush and Gonzales or "chafed against Administration initiatives etc."
Legal scholars say that prosecutions related to lying to or misleading Congress are rare, and that they usually focus on cases in which a defendant is alleged to have clearly lied or destroyed evidence in an attempt to mislead lawmakers. One recent example was the prosecution of former White House aide David H. Safavian, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for lying to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and others.
Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, said several statutes involving obstruction of justice and perjury can be applied to cases in which witnesses allegedly mislead lawmakers.
"The law essentially says what you can't do is lead Congress off on the wrong trail or to the wrong conclusion, even if what you say is technically true," Gillers said. "But it's very rare to actually have prosecutions for lying to Congress."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.