WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says he is staying at the Justice Department to try to repair its broken image, telling Congress in a statement released Monday he is troubled that politics may have played a part in hiring career U.S. prosecutors.
Senators already skeptical of Gonzales' ability to lead the department were preparing to hammer him about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and conflicts between his earlier statements and the testimony of a former aide.
Prosecutors, or U.S. attorneys, are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and can be fired for any reason. Traditionally, however, they are not dismissed for partisan political considerations, as some Democratic lawmakers allege has occurred under Gonzales, the chief U.S. law enforcement official.
The attorney general's comments came in 26 pages of prepared testimony that was released on the eve of his scheduled appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. After months of critics calling for his resignation, Gonzales appears to have weathered the political furor that began with the prosecutors' purge last year and subsequently revealed a Justice Department hiring process that favored Republican loyalists.
In his written testimony, Gonzales touted the department's focus on terrorists, violent crime and even aid to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina victims. He made no reference to the fired U.S. attorneys and only briefly mentioned the controversy that has torpedoed morale at the Justice Department and has called the fairness of its attorneys into question.
"Reinforcing public confidence in the department is also critical, and will be one of my top priorities as attorney general for the remainder of my term," Gonzales said in the prepared statement.
"I believe very strongly that there is no place for political considerations in the hiring of our career employees or in the administration of justice," he said. "As such, these allegations have been troubling to hear. From my perspective, there are two options available in light of these allegations. I would walk away or I could devote my time, effort and energy to fix the problems. Since I have never been one to quit, I decided that the best course of action was to remain here and fix the problems."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Democrat, was unswayed.
"There are probably only two people on Earth who think the attorney general ought to stay: Alberto Gonzales and President Bush," Schumer, who was the first senator to call for Gonzales' resignation, said Monday. "As long as he's in charge, the Justice Department, the rule of law and America will suffer."
Gonzales also reminded senators that the Justice Department has launched an internal investigation — one that he has no control over — into the accusations. The results are not expected for months.
It is against federal law to discriminate against career employees by hiring or firing them based on their political loyalties. But two months ago, former top Gonzales aide Monica S. Goodling admitted she did just that when she served as the Justice Department's liaison to the White House — including, at times, looking to see whether job applicants had contributed to the Republican or other political parties.
In her May testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodling described an "uncomfortable" meeting shortly before she left the Justice Department during which Gonzales asked for her recollection of events in the U.S. attorneys scandal, which Congress is investigating.
Her account led to questions of whether Gonzales was coaching Goodling — illegally tampering with a witness in the inquiry. Gonzales has said he was merely trying to comfort Goodling at an awkward time.
The issue of the meeting was Topic A among a list of a dozen questions that Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy sent Gonzales last week. Leahy also needled Gonzales on his April 17 appearance in front of the same panel, during which the attorney general declined to answer questions at least 60 times, citing a faulty memory or simply saying he didn't know the answers.
"I would like to avoid a repeat of that performance," Leahy wrote in the July 17 letter.