WASHINGTON – Resigning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left the scandal-scarred Justice Department on Friday, declaring himself hopeful about its mission of ferreting out crime and defending the truth.
Gonzales quit after 2 1/2 years at the department amid investigations into whether he broke the law and lied to Congress. He has denied any wrongdoing.
President Bush is expected to announce a nominee next week to replace his longtime friend and fellow Texan.
In a Friday morning speech, Gonzales said his time at the Justice Department made him determined to fight terrorists and sexual predators and crack down on guns, drugs and gang violence plaguing the nation's neighborhoods.
"Over the past two and a half years, I have seen tyranny, dishonesty, corruption and depravity of types I never thought possible," Gonzales said in prepared remarks at a Hispanic Heritage Month ceremony at Bolling Air Force Base. "I've seen things I didn't know man was capable of.
"But I will tell you here and now that these things still leave me hopeful," he said. "Because every time I see a glimmer of the evil man can do, I see the defenders of liberty, truth and justice who stand ready to fight it."
Later, Gonzales was feted at a standing-room-only Justice Department farewell ceremony attended by, among others, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former White House chief of staff Andy Card. Card's wife, The Rev. Kathleen Card, said a short prayer at the beginning of the ceremony, and former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, considered a top contender to replace Gonzales, also was in the audience.
Protesters who for months had dogged Gonzales at congressional hearings and other public appearances blew party horns and shook tambourines outside the Justice Department during the ceremony.
Michael Sullivan, the U.S. attorney in Boston and acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, praised Gonzales as a thoughtful man "who lives the law and is deeply patriotic in his convictions."
Gonzales is "an outstanding advocate on behalf of ATF and U.S. attorney offices across the country, and the Department of Justice as a whole," Sullivan told the audience.
It was a furor over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys that marked the beginning of the end of Gonzales' tenure as attorney general. The midterm firings, planned after the 2004 elections, were unprecedented in the department's recent memory and prompted Democrats to question whether they were politically motivated.
Gonzales' conflicting public statements about the ousters led Democrats and Republicans alike to criticize his honesty. Their charges were compounded by his later sworn testimony about the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program, which was contradicted by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller and former senior Justice Department officials.
Meanwhile, former Justice Department White House liaison, Monica M. Goodling, told a House panel in May that she felt "uncomfortable" during a conversation with Gonzales shortly after the U.S. attorney firings were revealed. In sworn testimony, Goodling said Gonzales asked for her recollection of events about the firings.
Her account led to questions of whether Gonzales was coaching Goodling -- illegally tampering with a witness in the ongoing inquiry. Gonzales has said he was merely trying to comfort Goodling at an awkward time.
The Justice Department has opened an internal investigation into both of the charges against Gonzales. Its conclusions are not expected until the end of the year at the earliest.
Despite months of calls for his resignation, from lawmakers and critics, Gonzales told employees as recently as July he was going to stay to fix problems at the Justice Department. His sudden announcement on Aug. 27 that he was leaving took most of his 110,000 employees by surprise and left the White House scrambling to find a replacement.
Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general until the Senate confirms Gonzales' successor. Among those being eyed by the White House are Olson, former deputy attorney general George Terwilliger, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Wilkins and former U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey of Manhattan.
History may not be kind to Gonzales' tenure at the Justice Department, which he is accused of using as an arm of a more political White House.
"Whether or not he did anything illegal, he took advantage of every loophole available to make sure the Justice Department served political ends to help Republicans and hurt Democrats," said Paul F. Rothstein, a Georgetown Law School professor of legal and government ethics. "If it had gone on, the public's confidence and impartiality of the Justice Department would have been severely eroded."
Nearly all of those who spoke at the goodbye ceremony described the soft-spoken Gonzales as a kind and humble man. Acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford, who admitted being "a little concerned" when he took his post in July, said Gonzales "has never once taken the trappings of his title." Steve Bradbury, Justice's chief legal counsel, said Gonzales "reveres the mission of this department and the people who faithfully carry it out."
Gonzales spoke for just over 5 minutes at the afternoon ceremony, his voice appearing to crack with emotion several times as he thanked his wife, Rebecca, and Bush for their support.
"Please know that I leave today with the highest regard and the admiration for the employees of the department," Gonzales said. "And I leave having had the privilege and honor of serving as attorney general."