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The scandal surrounding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys took a climactic turn Thursday when one Republican Senate Judiciary Committee member called for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. After a morning of heavy scrutiny over Gonzales’ role in the Dec. 7 firing of seven U.S. attorneys, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told Gonzales point-blank, “I believe the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.” Gonzales appeared before the committee to answer questions about the dismissals in what many say is his last chance to save his job. It was clear from the outset that things weren’t going well. Many Republicans on the panel expressed their dismay about the attorney general’s faulty memory and conflicting explanations of his role in the firings. For example, Gonzales told senators that he doesn’t remember the reasons for firing Daniel Bogden, then the U.S. attorney for Nevada, and Margaret Chiara, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan. Gonzales also told senators that he had never reviewed, nor was he aware if any of his aides had reviewed, the extensive performance evaluations done periodically on U.S. Attorney’s Offices, known as EARS reports. The Justice Department has described seven of the eight dismissals as “performance-related.” Nevertheless, Gonzales testified after reviewing aides’ e-mails released by the Justice Department, he was certain that dismissing Bogden, Chiara, and six other U.S. attorneys was the right thing to do. “My decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand,” Gonzales said, noting that Bogden’s office had lacked “energy” and refused an obscenity case, while Chiara’s office had had an internal dispute that required mediation from an official in Washington. Sitting alone behind a 12-foot-long table draped in a red cloth, Gonzales came before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Republican support for the attorney general appeared to be vanishing. In what the committee’s ranking Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, dubbed a “reconfirmation” hearing, Gonzales and senators from both parties engaged in a number of testy exchanges over his handling of the firings. “You have a heavy burden of proof to re-establish your credibility here,” Specter said. “Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office and the White House, and we made up reasons to fire them . . . and some of it sounds good and some of it doesn’t.” “Sir, I respectfully disagree with that,” Gonzales responded. Specter took issue with Gonzales’ continued insistence that he had only “limited involvement” in the process that led to the eight firings, and listed a number of meetings that Gonzales reportedly attended in which concerns about some of the fired prosecutors — including then-New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam — were expressed by White House or Justice Department political appointees. Specter declined to go as far as Coburn. He later told reporters, “I believe his ability to manage the department has been severely undercut.” But Specter said it would be left to the president to remove Gonzales from office. Gonzales said that those meetings should be viewed separately from the review process being run by his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, to select U.S. attorneys for termination. The attorney general said that when he communicated to Sampson in October concerns that President George W. Bush and White House adviser Karl Rove had about voter-fraud prosecutions not being brought in New Mexico and other districts, he was doing so only as part of his “supervisory responsibilities” and not as part of the process by which U.S. attorneys were selected to be fired. Documents released by the Justice Department show that Iglesias was added to the list of prosecutors to be fired soon after Gonzales’ conversation with Rove and Bush. Specter was skeptical of Gonzales’ explanations, raising his voice and wiping his brow at several points. “Your characterization is significantly, if not totally, at variance with the facts,” Specter said. Gonzales also said he had no recollection of a Nov. 27 meeting with a group of senior officials, which his aides say he attended and at which time the decision was made to fire the prosecutors. “I have searched my memory,” Gonzales said. “I have no recollection of the meeting.” “This was not that long ago,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), adding later, “Mr. Sampson seemed to indicate that it was a momentous decision and there’d be political backlash. . . . You don’t recall any of that?” “I’ve searched my mind,” Gonzales said. “I really don’t recall.” Sessions remained skeptical. “I guess I have concern about your recollection,” he said. Gonzales did point out that he was dealing with other significant matters the week of the meeting. Gonzales began the hearing by sounding a note of contrition in his opening statement. “Those eight attorneys deserved better — they deserved better from me and from the Department of Justice, which they served selflessly for many years,” Gonzales said. “I regret how they were treated, and I apologize to them and to their families for allowing this matter to become an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle. I accept full responsibility for this.” He went on to say that the Justice Department needed to improve its communication with U.S. attorneys in the field, that the fired U.S. attorneys should have been told in advance of their shortcomings, and that the department’s leadership failed by not explaining to them why they were being fired. But Gonzales’ defense of the firings, offered even as he maintained that he had little involvement in that process, drew jeers. “There is nothing in the record that demonstrates you had sufficient knowledge to make that determination,” said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). Other Democrats also struck an aggressive stance. “I do not excuse the attorney general’s actions and his failures from the outset to be forthright with us, with these prosecutors, and with the American people,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee’s chairman. The Justice Department has provided a series of shifting explanations for the firings. In January, Gonzales told Congress that he would “never, ever” fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons. In February, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told Congress that one of the U.S. attorney’s had been dismissed to open the job for a former aide to Rove. The department categorized the other firings as “performance-based” but later, after the fired U.S. attorneys challenged that assessment, sought to clarify the reasons as having to do with policy differences and management concerns. Earlier this winter, the department had sought to portray Gonzales as having a minor role in the dismissals. Since then, the firing scandal has led to the resignation of two of his top aides, and earlier this week, McNulty would not refute a news report that he was looking for a new job. On Thursday, Gonzales said he would not remain as attorney general if he felt his continued service would damage the Justice Department. “I have to know in my heart that I can continue to be effective as a leader of the department,” he said. “The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign as attorney general.”
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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