Gonzales Aide Refuses to Answer Questions in Congressional Probe of U.S. Attorney Firings

Monica Goodling, a senior Justice Department official involved in the firings of federal prosecutors, will refuse to answer questions at upcoming Senate hearings, citing Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, her lawyer said Monday.

"The potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real," said the lawyer, John Dowd.

"One need look no further than the recent circumstances and proceedings involving Lewis Libby," he said, a reference to the recent conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff in the CIA leak case.

The White House, meanwhile, continued to stand by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales despite new calls over the weekend for his resignation and documents that indicate he may have been more involved in the dismissals than he has previously acknowledged.

Democrats have accused the Justice Department and the White House of purging the prosecutors for political reasons. The Bush administration maintains the firings were not improper because U.S. attorneys are political appointees.

Goodling was Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison until she took a leave of absence earlier this month. She was subpoenaed last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee along with several of Gonzales' other top aides.

There have been questions about whether Goodling and others misinformed Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty about the firings just before he testified before the Senate committee in February.

Dowd said that since then a senior Justice Department official had privately told a member of the Senate committee that he was misled by Goodling and others before testifying.

Gonzales' truthfulness about the firings of seven prosecutors on Dec. 7 and another one months earlier also have been questioned. On March 13 at a news conference, Gonzales denied that he participated in discussions or saw any documents about the firings, despite documents that show he attended a Nov. 27 meeting with senior aides on the topic, where he approved a detailed plan to carry out the dismissals.

Goodling was one of five senior Justice Department aides who met with Gonzales for that Nov. 27 discussion. Department documents released Friday to Capitol Hill show she attended multiple meetings about the dismissals for months.

She also was among aides who on Feb. 5 helped Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty prepare his testimony for a Senate hearing the next day — during which he may have given Congress incomplete or otherwise misleading information about the circumstances of the firings.

Additionally, Goodling was involved in an April 6, 2006, phone call between the Justice Department and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who had complained to the Bush administration and the president about David Iglesias, then the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque. Domenici wanted Iglesias to push more aggressively on a corruption probe against Democrats before the 2006 elections.

The Justice Department appeared surprised Monday to hear of Goodling's decision on testifying.

Earlier Monday, addressing rumors that department aides would refuse to testify, Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said: "That is incorrect."

Addressing the anticipated testimony of McNulty and Associate Deputy Attorney General Will Moschella — the two who recently appeared, respectively, in Senate and House hearings — Scolinos said the two men "are voluntarily making themselves available to the Hill and plan to fully answer all questions posed to them."

Scolinos had no immediate comment about Goodling's testimony.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday that Gonzales "might be accused of being imprecise in what he was saying," but maintained that the attorney general was not closely involved in the firings.

"I understand the concern. I understand that people might think that there are inconsistencies," Perino said. "But as I read it, I think that he has been consistent." The White House is placing the onus on Gonzales to explain his actions to lawmakers, but he is not scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee until April 17 — three weeks away.

Speaking to reporters in Orlando, Fla., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said whether or not Gonzales was fully engaged, "he has lost all credibility with me." Nelson on Sunday joined the ranks of lawmakers in both parties calling for Gonzales to resign.

"Unless he has a good explanation for not only what he knew and when he knew it but also for the ineptitude of the department ... he is a goner," Nelson said of Gonzales. "I think there might be enough Republicans who are calling for his resignation, even before he takes the witness stand."

The Senate committee's senior Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, on Sunday said documents including a Nov. 27 calendar entry that placed the attorney general at a Justice Department meeting to discuss the dismissals "appear to contradict" Gonzales' earlier statements.

But his Nov. 27 schedule, included in a batch of memos sent to Capitol Hill late Friday, showed he attended an hour-long meeting at which, aides said, he approved a detailed plan for executing the purge.

Since the release of that calendar entry on Friday, Justice aides have said Gonzales meant he was not involved in selecting the prosecutors when he said he didn't participate in discussions about their firings.