WASHINGTON – Thursday's blockbuster hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee will put Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the test as he defends his botched handling of the news that eight U.S. attorneys were removed from duty last December.
Gonzales has already told the committee that he has nothing to hide, but committee member Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, said no fewer than three times on Wednesday that the "burden of proof is on the attorney general" to explain why the prosecutors were fired.
In a preview of his testimony, released Sunday, Gonzales concedes that the Justice Department's handling of the dismissals ended up creating an "unfortunate and undignified public spectacle," but at no time were any of the prosecutors' fates decided based on political considerations aimed at encouraging or killing partisan prosecutions.
"I know that I did not, and would not, ask for a resignation of any individual in order to interfere with or influence a particular prosecution for partisan political gain," Gonzales says in the testimony originally scheduled to be given on Tuesday, but delayed two days because of the Virginia Tech shootings.
"I also have no basis to believe that anyone involved in this process sought the removal of a U.S. attorney for an improper reason," he says.
But Schumer said Gonzales must give specifics in each case because so far he has offered only "misstatements and contradictions."
"The attorney general and his supporters seem to think that simply denying U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons exonerates him. That just wont wash," Schumer said.
Schumer, chairman of the Judiciary panel's courts subcommittee, which has oversight of U.S. attorneys, said Gonzales needs to reveal who made the initial complaints, who investigated the complaints and why some attorneys were fired while others were not.
In an open letter to committee leaders, Bruce Fein, chairman of the conservative American Freedom Agenda, points to falsehoods or misleading statements in Gonzales' pre-released statement. He accuses the attorney general of "ethical obtuseness" and using "Clintonesque language reminiscent of quarreling with the meaning of the word 'is.'"
"If these statements were in a circular selling stock, they would be sanctioned by the Securities and Exchange Commission as false and misleading," said Fein, who supports the nomination of SEC Chairman Chris Cox as attorney general. "The attorney general's statements seems like restricted railroad tickets, good for this day and train only."
Schumer said among the most troubling details so far are contradictions between Gonzales and his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson as well as Michael Battle, former director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys at the Justice Department. Both have been interviewed by Senate and House Judiciary Committee staff.
Interviewed last Friday, Battle apparently told committee aides that he was "not aware of performance problems with respect to several of the U.S. attorneys just days before they were fired."
"That doesn't fit with the claims that the U.S. attorneys were fired for performance reasons," Schumer said.
Gonzales, whose job could be on the line as several Democrats and some Republicans have called for his resignation, is also expected to say that he was not very involved in the review process and received few briefings.
He says little guidance was offered on who should or should not be removed, according to the testimony, adding that he only remembers two names being suggested to him as possible replacements — Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand and prosecutor Deborah Rhodes
"I do not recall my response or any other discussion. Nor do I recall the timing of when this was raised with me," Gonzales will tell the committee. "Although these names were mentioned to me, I do not recall making any decision, either on or before Dec. 7, 2006, about who should replace the U.S. attorneys who were asked to resign that day."
He adds that he accepted the recommendations because they "represented the consensus of senior Justice Department officials most knowledgeable about the performance of all 93 U.S. attorneys" and he believed the process had been based on their performances alone.
"In hindsight, I would have handled this differently," Gonzales is to say. "Looking back, it is clear to me that I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous, and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way."
Sampson left the Justice Department over the controversy on March 12. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29 that he remembered discussions with Gonzales "this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign."
According to Schumer, Sampson told committee staff in an interview on Sunday that the attorney general's denial of involvement in the review process is "an inaccurate or incomplete statement, at least with regard to some of the U.S. attorneys." Sampson met once again with House Judiciary Committee staff on Wednesday.
Schumer said he also wants to hear answers to suggestions that the attorney general was involved in discussions on the firings of David Iglesias of New Mexico and Carol Lam of California, whose removals are alleged to have been motivated by their respective failure to investigate Democratic candidates or excessive interest in alleged Republican improprieties in their districts.
Asked if the attorney general was being forced to prove a negative, as Republicans like Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have charged, Schumer dismissed the suggestion, saying Gonzales just needs to "state the real reason why the U.S. attorneys were fired."
"It was first said they were fired for performance reasons. Their evaluations say they're terrific or good. So what is the real reason? ... There is no clear reason that emerges. And that leads to two questions: What is the real reason? And why don't people want to talk about the real reason if it was perfectly legitimate?" Schumer asked.
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.