WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales approved plans to fire several U.S. attorneys in a November meeting, according to newly released documents that contradict earlier claims that he was not closely involved in the dismissals.
The Nov. 27 meeting, in which the attorney general and at least five top Justice Department officials participated, focused on a five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors, Justice Department officials said late Friday.
There, Gonzales signed off on the plan, which was crafted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Sampson resigned last week amid a political firestorm surrounding the firings.
The five-step plan involved notifying Republican home-state senators of the impending dismissals, preparing for potential political upheaval, naming replacements and submitting them to the Senate for confirmation.
The documents released Friday indicated that the hour-long morning discussion, held in the attorney general's conference room, was the only time Gonzales met with top aides who decided which prosecutors to fire and how to do it.
Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said it was not immediately clear whether Gonzales gave his final approval to begin the firings at that meeting. Scolinos also said Gonzales was not involved in the process of selecting which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
On March 13, in explaining the firings, Gonzales told reporters he was aware that some of the dismissals were being discussed but was not involved in them.
"I knew my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers — where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district, and that's what I knew," Gonzales said last week. "But that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
Later, he added: "I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department, obviously there are going to be decisions that I'm not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who is leading the inquiry into the firings, said: "If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general."
The documents were released a few hours after Sampson agreed to testify at a Senate inquiry next week into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Asked to explain the difference between Gonzales' comments and his schedule, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse largely sidestepped the question by saying the attorney general had relied on Sampson to draw up the plans on the firings.
"The attorney general has made clear that he charged Mr. Sampson with directing a plan to replace U.S. attorneys where for one reason or another the department believed that we could do better," Roehrkasse said. "He was not, however, involved at the levels of selecting the particular U.S. attorneys who would be replaced."
Gonzales this week directed the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate the circumstances of the firings, officials said. The department's inspector general also will participate in that investigation.
Nonetheless, Democrats pounced late Friday.
"If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as Attorney General," Schumer said.
Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers:
"This puts the Attorney General front and center in these matters, contrary to information that had previously been provided to the public and Congress."
The developments were not what Republicans, skittish about new revelations, had hoped for.
Presidential spokesman Trey Bohn referred questions to the Justice Department, saying White House officials had not seen the documents.
Earlier Friday, a staunch White House ally, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, summoned White House counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill and told him he wanted "no surprises."
"I told him, 'Everything you can release, please release. We need to know what the facts are,"' Cornyn said.
The dispute over the prosecutors has become the latest clash between Bush's Republican Party and the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress. Democrats, who have long accused Republicans of running roughshod over opponents, have portrayed the firings as part of a campaign of intimidation and obstruction by the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers.
Sampson will appear Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his attorney said. His appearance will mark the first congressional testimony by a Justice Department aide since the release of thousands of documents that show the firings were orchestrated, in part, by the White House.
Sampson "looks forward to answering the committee's questions," wrote his attorney, Brad Berenson, in a two-paragraph letter to Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter.
"We trust that his decision to do so will satisfy the need of the Congress to obtain information from him concerning the requested resignations of the United States attorneys," Berenson wrote.
E-mails between the White House and the Justice Department, dating back to the weeks immediately after the 2004 presidential election, show Sampson was heavily engaged in deciding how many prosecutors would be replaced, and which ones. The Bush administration maintains the dismissals of the eight political appointees were proper.
Democrats, however, question whether the eight were selected because they were not seen as, in Sampson's words, "loyal Bushies."
"He was right at the center of things," Schumer said of Sampson. "He has said publicly that what others have said is not how it happened."
Schumer said he hoped Sampson would provide more detail about who initiated the firings and whether they were politically motivated.