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It was the beginning of the end for Alberto Gonzales. On Feb. 6, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty was called to the Hill to explain the firing of seven U.S. attorneys. He told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that six were fired for “performance-related” reasons and one was let go to make way for an acolyte of Karl Rove — testimony that conflicted with the Justice Department’s own internal performance reviews, which were mostly positive. And things only went downhill from there. Over the next six months, the top ranks at the Justice Department went into a virtual meltdown. Senate and House Democrats began investigating, leading to the disclosure of thousands of pages of internal DOJ documents showing that the firings were put in motion by Justice officials with input from the White House. The probe also revealed that two more U.S. attorneys had been fired — bringing the total to nine. One of the fired prosecutors said he was pressured by two Republican members of Congress to bring voter fraud charges against Democrats shortly before the 2006 elections. Three others said they were told by a top Justice staffer to keep quiet about their dismissals or face retaliation. The scandal snowballed with damning and embarrassing details about the politicization of several arms of the department — many of them coming from young Justice officials handpicked by Gonzales with close ties to the White House. Then came the resignations: Michael Battle, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys; Monica Goodling, the Justice Department’s White House liaison; and D. Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Gonzales. McNulty announced his departure in May, and his exit was shortly followed by that of his chief of staff, Michael Elston. Week after week, Gonzales or other top DOJ officials were called to the Hill to answer questions about the firings or some other revelation spurred by the investigations. Goodling, who was granted immunity from prosecution, told the House Judiciary Committee in May that the Justice Department routinely bypassed hiring procedures when picking immigration judges and evaluated candidates based upon their political loyalties. Bradley Schlozman, who for a short time ran the Civil Rights Division, admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in June that he had bragged about hiring Republicans and “good Americans.” Gonzales, the former White House counsel who has been dogged by questions about his independence since President Bush nominated him for attorney general in November 2004, did himself no favors. Time and again, he gave testimony or made public statements that contradicted prior statements or internal memorandums. For example, on March 13, Gonzales tried to limit his involvement in the firings by telling reporters at a news conference, “I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” However, internal memos and e-mails show that in fact Gonzales had attended a late November 2006 meeting to discuss the firings with his top aides. Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, directly challenged Gonzales’ assertions at a March 29 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. There, he told senators that Gonzales’ version of events was misleading. “I don’t think it’s entirely accurate,” he said. Gonzales also began to lose the support of Republican members of Congress. At an April 19 hearing, Gonzales struggled to explain his role in the firings, using the phrases “I don’t recall,” “I have no recollection,” and “I have no memory” 64 times. The answers infuriated senators. “Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Really deplorable” is how Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) described the testimony. Two more specific instances proved particularly damaging to Gonzales. Goodling — Gonzales’ former aide — testified that before she left the department in April, Gonzales approached her at Main Justice to quiz her on what she remembered about the prosecutor firings. That testimony gave rise to a still–ongoing joint investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and its Office of the Inspector General into whether the then-attorney general tampered with a witness. The second incident involved Gonzales’ role in getting Justice approval for the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program while serving as White House counsel in 2004. On May 15, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told senators a startling tale of a hospital bedside visit to an ailing John Ashcroft by Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. Comey recalled how Gonzales and Card tried to bypass him and get then-Attorney General Ashcroft to OK the reauthorization of the surveillance program. Comey told senators that there was disagreement within the administration to such a degree that he, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and others threatened to resign if the White House continued the program without changes. Gonzales had told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a 2006 hearing that there had been no disagreement over the reauthorization of the program, which was renewed every 45 days by the president. When senators questioned Gonzales one last time on July 24, he said the dissent was over another classified program. His comments drew immediate calls from senators for a perjury investigation. “I don’t trust you,” said a blunt committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Mueller, who appeared before a House panel a few days after his boss, contradicted Gonzales and backed up Comey’s account. After a vacation, Gonzales announced his resignation on Aug. 27. Bush said Gonzales left because “months of unfair treatment” had “created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department.” Bush nominated former federal Judge Michael Mukasey for the job on Sept. 17.
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected].

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