WASHINGTON – Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said Monday he will resign, the highest-ranking Bush administration casualty in the furor over the firing of U.S. attorneys.
McNulty, who has served 18 months as the Justice Department's second-in-command, announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of U.S. attorneys in San Antonio. He told them he would remain at the department until late summer or until the Senate approves a successor, aides said.
He also sent a one-page letter of resignation to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose own job has been put in jeopardy by the firings and their aftermath.
"The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career," McNulty said in the letter, which did not mention the firings controversy.
Neither did Gonzales, in a responding statement that praised McNulty as "a dynamic and thoughtful leader."
"Paul is an outstanding public servant and a fine attorney who has been valued here at the department, by me and so many others, as both a colleague and a friend," Gonzales said.
McNulty has been considering leaving for months, and aides said he never intended to serve more than two years as deputy attorney general. But his ultimate decision to step down, the aides said, was hastened by anger at being linked to the prosecutors' purge that Congress is investigating to determine if eight U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about McNulty's decision.
McNulty also irked Gonzales by testifying in February that at least one of the fired prosecutors was ordered to make way for a protege of Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser. Gonzales, who has resisted lawmakers' calls to resign, maintains the firings were proper, and rooted in the prosecutors' lackluster performances.
It's unclear what McNulty will do after he leaves the Justice Department, where he has held several high-ranking posts in current Bush administration and that of former President George H.W. Bush.
McNulty also served more than four years as the U.S. attorney in suburban Alexandria, Va., a position he took three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and one he frequently described as "one of the greatest jobs you can ever have."
Much of McNulty's focus as U.S. attorney was on terrorism cases, including the conviction of Zacarias Moussaoui, who admitted to conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers but was spared the death penalty.
But it was his dealings with his former fellow U.S. attorneys that accelerated McNulty's resignation.
Part of his job was to oversee the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys, and he and Gonzales approved the list of prosecutors to be dismissed last fall. Documents show McNulty also attended numerous meetings about the prosecutors' firings — both at the Justice Department and the White House, including at least one that Rove attended.
On Feb. 6, McNulty told a Senate panel that while some of the ousted prosecutors were fired for performance-related causes, at least one was asked to leave without cause. That exception was Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., who McNulty acknowledged was told to resign so that Tim Griffin, a former aide to Rove and the Republican National Committee, could take his place.
McNulty also told Congress that the decision to fire the eight U.S. attorneys in December was made solely by the Justice Department. He was furious, aides said, after learning later that Sampson had been talking to the White House about potential firings since at least January 2005.
Gonzales maintains the firings were needed to replace underperforming U.S. attorneys, and he has disagreed with McNulty's testimony that Cummins had been fired for any other reason.
"The attorney general is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attys this morning," Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who was traveling with Gonzales in South America at the time, wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail, a copy of which was released as part of the congressional investigation.
"He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate," Roehrkasse wrote.
Gonzales and Sampson's lawyer have both said McNulty should have been well aware of the circumstances surrounding the firings. In his own Senate testimony last month, Gonzales indicated he trusted his most senior aides, including McNulty, to decide which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
"It was to be a group of officials, including the deputy attorney general, who were much more knowledgeable than I about the performance of each U.S. attorney," Gonzales said.
However, e-mails released by the department show McNulty was not intimately involved in all of the choices and at one point questioned the dismissal of U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in Nevada.
"I'm a little skittish about Bogden," McNulty wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to Sampson. He concluded: "I'll admit have not looked at his district's performance. Sorry to be raising this again/now; it was just on my mind last night and this morning."
A former Justice spokesman and policy director, McNulty was keenly aware of the importance of the public's perception of the department, which prides itself on its political independence from the White House.
Still, McNulty is also a longtime GOP loyalist who was spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Republicans during the impeachment of President Clinton and later directed the transition team for the new Bush administration's Justice Department.
Earlier this year, he scaled back tough department tactics that aimed to curb corporate fraud after the Enron-era scandals. The so-called "McNulty Memo" limited prosecutors' ability to obtain confidential data from corporations without first receiving written approval from the department.
McNulty also led Justice Department crackdowns on military contracts, most notably in Iraq, that were awarded or otherwise pushed by bribed officials. His interest in those cases largely stemmed from his tenure as U.S. attorney, where his office had criminal oversight of the Pentagon.
A native of Pittsburgh, McNulty is married and has four children.