TOPICS > Politics

Former Gonzales Aide Denies Major Role in Attorney Firings

May 23, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), Michigan: All cameras please move away from the witness table.

MARGARET WARNER: The mountain of TV and still cameras had to be moved aside this morning so House Judiciary Committee members could question 33-year-old Monica Goodling, a central figure in the firestorm surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, stemming from the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

REP. LAMAR DAVIS (R), Texas: I know this is not an easy process for you to go through, and I know you’ve never had to endure anything like this hearing before.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodling, who resigned from the Justice Department last month, initially refused to testify, but was forced to appear after she was granted immunity from prosecution.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: You are obligated to answer each question completely and truthfully.

MARGARET WARNER: Committee members were most interested in Goodling’s responsibilities while in the office overseeing the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys and her more recent service as the department’s White House liaison.

MONICA GOODLING, Former Justice Department Official: I did not hold the keys to the kingdom, as some have suggested.

MARGARET WARNER: In her first public remarks, Goodling rejected press reports that she played a major role in the firings. Instead, she told Committee Chairman John Conyers that Gonzales’ former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, came up with the list of who should go.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: So from your point of view, your answer to the question would be Kyle Sampson?

MONICA GOODLING: Mr. Sampson compiled the list. I know that he did speak to the deputy attorney general about it, and I know that he presented it to the attorney general.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: And the attorney general being Mr. Alberto Gonzales?


MARGARET WARNER: Goodling described what she called an uncomfortable final meeting with the attorney general as she left the Justice Department, when he gave her his recollection of how the firing process unfolded.

MONICA GOODLING: He laid out a little bit of it, and then he asked me if he thought, if I had any reaction to his iteration. And I remember thinking at that point that this was something that we were all going to have to talk about, and I didn’t know that it was — I just — I didn’t know that it was maybe appropriate for us to talk about that at that point, and so I just didn’t. As far as I can remember, I just didn’t respond.

White House involvement?

MARGARET WARNER: Goodling also accused Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty of misleading Congress about certain aspects of the matter during Senate testimony in February.

MONICA GOODLING: I think, in some ways, he simply didn't communicate all that he knew.

MARGARET WARNER: McNulty has blamed Goodling and Kyle Sampson for giving him inadequate information before he testified. Goodling denied that.

REP. LINDA SANCHEZ (D), California: What things did you specifically brief him on that you felt he was not entirely forthcoming before Congress when he testified?

MONICA GOODLING: He was asked whether the White House was involved in any way, and he said, "Well, these are presidential appointments, so I'm sure White House personnel was informed at some point." Certainly...

REP. LINDA SANCHEZ: And why would that not be a complete answer?

MONICA GOODLING: I think because of the way -- the way it came across. I think people believed he was downplaying the role to a certain extent. And the White House had been involved for several -- he had -- he was aware that the department had worked for at least several months with the White House, and that many offices in the White House had signed off, and that they were, in fact, you know, participating, and making phone calls and different sorts of things with members.

MARGARET WARNER: Democrats peppered Goodling with questions of whether she ever discussed the firings with White House staff, specifically with political adviser Karl Rove.

CONGRESSMAN: Did Karl Rove say anything else in the meeting?

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), California: Did you ever discuss any other research that you had done or discovered with Mr. Karl Rove?

MARGARET WARNER: But Goodling insisted she never spoke with Rove about the firings. Texas Republican Lamar Smith followed up.

REP. LAMAR SMITH: Did you ever have any contact with Karl Rove about the replacement of any of these U.S. attorneys?

MONICA GOODLING: There was one meeting at the White House after the decision had been implemented, and he attended a meeting that I was also at, but that was the only time I've been in a room with him when this topic was discussed.

MARGARET WARNER: Goodling said she had no knowledge that any of the U.S. attorneys were fired over politically charged prosecutions, as many Democrats have alleged. But she admitted that politics did play a role in her own hiring practices within the department, saying she did move to block several career attorneys from being hired or promoted because their resumes suggested they were Democrats.

CONGRESSMAN: ... any laws that you could have broken by taking political considerations into account, quote, "on some occasions"?

MONICA GOODLING: The best I can say is that I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions.

CONGRESSMAN: Was that legal?

MONICA GOODLING: Sir, I'm not able to answer that question. I know I crossed the line.

MARGARET WARNER: California Republican Dan Lungren came to Goodling's defense.

REP. DAN LUNGREN (R), California: Doesn't a president have a right, when he appoints an attorney general, to expect him and the people in the Justice Department, including civil servants, to use the emphases that the president wants to make the decisions in terms of priorities that the president wants? And isn't that an appropriate thing? And is that the kind of thing that you did while you were in the department?

MONICA GOODLING: That's what I was trying to do. I was trying to find very well-qualified people who would be enthusiastic about, you know, supporting the attorney general's priorities and focus, but, like I said, I may not have always got it right.

MARGARET WARNER: The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether Goodling engaged in illegal personnel practices.

Lessons from Goodling's testimony

Rep. Artur Davis
We continue to have reasons to believe that these U.S. attorneys were fired because of, in some instances, political pressure from outside the department, and that the Department of Justice didn't give us the straight story.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Monica Goodling's testimony today, we're joined by two members of the House Judiciary Committee. Artur Davis, a Democrat from Alabama, he is co-sponsor of a resolution calling for a no-confidence vote against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And Dan Lungren, a Republican from California.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS (D), Alabama: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you learn today, beginning with you, Congressman Davis, that bears on the original key question, whether these U.S. attorneys were dismissed for any improper reasons?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Well, I was troubled by two things today. Toward the very end of the hearing, Ms. Goodling made it very clear that Attorney General Gonzales may not have been fully accurate, just as Deputy Attorney General McNulty may not have been fully accurate with the U.S. Congress.

She indicated that, while Attorney General Gonzales told us just a few weeks ago that he had not made any effort to find out how this list came to be prepared, that he had not made any effort to find out how the names got on the list, that he actually had a conversation with her, Monica Goodling, the day she left the Justice Department, and he discussed his recollections of how these terminations happened.

Now, first of all, he indicated to us he didn't have recollections of how they happened. Second of all, he was very clear with the committee a few weeks ago that he we wouldn't discuss and he wouldn't have discussed what happened because he was going to be a fact witness and didn't want to be accused of colluding with others to shape testimony. Well, Ms. Goodling today made it very clear that the attorney general had spoken with her about the very thing that he said he wouldn't speak about.

Second of all, I think we continue to have reasons to believe that these U.S. attorneys were fired because of, in some instances, political pressure from outside the department, and that the Department of Justice didn't give us the straight story, that McNulty didn't give a straight story at first, and, frankly, that General Gonzales did not give a fully forthcoming story about that motivation.

MARGARET WARNER: But just briefly, was there anything she said today that added weight to that second point?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Well, unfortunately, we didn't have much time to develop a second point today. Let's put the shoe on the other foot. She did nothing to dissolve this lingering cloud over how these U.S. attorneys came to be dismissed. The cloud is still there, and we're going to have to keep investigating. And, frankly, we need to hear from Karl Rove and some of the White House to close this matter out.

No illegality?

Rep. Dan Lungren
The fact of the matter is, there is no illegality that has been presented with one iota of evidence with respect to the hiring or firing of these U.S. attorneys.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Congressman Lungren, your take today on what it says about the real key questions, about Gonzales' role, and about why these attorneys -- excuse me, U.S. attorneys were fired.

REP. DAN LUNGREN (R), California: I couldn't disagree more with my friend, Mr. Davis. Look, the Democrats expected to have some big bang coming out of this hearing today. You just heard the disappointment in Mr. Davis' voice that nothing came forward; it ended with a thud.

The fact of the matter is, there is no illegality that has been presented with one iota of evidence with respect to the hiring or firing of these U.S. attorneys. Was it a botched job? Absolutely. Did they mishandle it? Absolutely. Did they do it in a way that was inartful? Absolutely.

But the idea that a president of the United States doesn't have a right to hire and fire U.S. attorneys for whatever reason he wants, other than trying to interfere with an investigation -- and there's no proof of that, even though they have been trying to suggest that -- people ought to understand.

I mean, I'm the only member, I believe, of the panel that's been an attorney general, and I was the attorney general in the state of California. Believe me, there is a need to try and carry out the promises you made to the people when you were elected, or in this case, when the president was elected, and that means making judgments as to who should be a U.S. attorney with respect to whether they're going to follow the priorities you've established. There's nothing odd or onerous about that, and certainly nothing illegal about that.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me follow up with you, Congressman Lungren. What about the first point that your colleague just made, which has to do with the conversation that Monica Goodling relayed having with the attorney general in sort of her exit interview, in which he did ask her -- tell his recollection, and ask her if that jibed with hers? Do you see anything improper about that or anything that's at odds with what he told the Congress?

REP. DAN LUNGREN: Well, my Democratic friends tried to probe and see if there was anything there, other than what she said was that she felt uncomfortable about it. Look, this is a natural situation. She's going to her boss. She's telling him that she's about ready to leave. She's talking about whether she should transfer somewhere or leave the department. She's uncomfortable because she doesn't believe that she can be effective anymore.

The Congress is telling her that she might have to testify. Her boss is saying, "Well, we're going to see if we can work it where only I have to testify and maybe the deputy attorney general." And then, in the course of that, he says, "This is how I remember those particular things."

At that point in time, she felt that maybe they ought not to discuss it. There's no indication whatsoever he pressed her on that. There's no indication that he tried to pursue that. There's no indication that this was an extended conversation.

Inartful? Yes. She was awkward? Yes, because of the circumstances. But to try and suggest here that there was something illegal or something inappropriate about the attorney general, I think it is reaching.

I'm not a defender of everything this administration has done at the Department of Justice. I've gone after them for their inadequacies in the areas of national security letters and the Patriot Act, but this is not a question of proper management. What we're trying to find out in our committee, I suppose -- the reason why we're spending $250,000 is to show that there's some illegal activity. We haven't seen one iota of evidence.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me go back to Congressman Davis. Congressman Davis, what about on another huge point that Democrats have been pursuing, White House involvement? Fair to say, nothing new on that today?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Well, let's not focus just on the question of White House involvements. Focus on the broad question of whether political players brought their influence to bear to remove U.S. attorneys.

We know that a senator from New Mexico, Senator Domenici, picked up the phone and called the U.S. attorney and complained about the fact that he hadn't brought enough prosecution of Democrats. We know that, in Seattle, Washington, Jack McKay, the U.S. attorney, received a phone call from a state Republican chairman, as well as from the chief of staff to a member of Congress, asking, "Why didn't you bring voter fraud prosecutions against some of these Democrats in this highly contested election in Washington?"

If U.S. attorneys believe that they need to be in good standing with senators and congressmen and that that's what will determine whether or not they stay in office, they will take those concerns into account and, rather than making prosecution decisions based on the facts, they'll make them based on the need to stay in political good graces with their party.

Alberto Gonzales' future

Rep. Artur Davis
The attorney general indicated over and over again that these firings were for performance-based reasons. That rationale has collapsed a long, long time ago.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me go to Congressman Lungren. You seem to be responding to an earlier point he made, so I'm going to throw a new point at you. What about the testimony she gave about political considerations did influence her hiring decisions, her recommendations dealing with career attorneys in the Justice Department?

REP. DAN LUNGREN: She did admit that she made mistakes in that regard, and she did admit that she wished she hadn't done that, and she may have crossed the line, as she said, in areas of civil service. And she shouldn't have done that. And she said she shouldn't have done that.

MARGARET WARNER: But did that make you think that the direction had come from anyone higher up or that there was any undue politicization of the department?

REP. DAN LUNGREN: No, she, in fact, in specific questioning, denied that. Now, she indicated that she took into consideration people's political philosophy.

Just as you consider whether someone believes we ought to have tough laws with respect to enforcement of particular kinds of infractions, that you ought to have emphases on white-collar crimes versus drug crimes versus violent crimes, those are things that are legitimate. And she suggested that, in some cases, political philosophy that she broadly described as liberal versus conservative, and that is appropriate.

Where she said she crossed the line is where she may have looked at what someone's registration was. She said she was wrong on that, inappropriate, and she had no intention to do anything illegal under those circumstances. Does that look like there is a broad effort to do anything illegal? Absolutely not.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Congressman Davis, do you see a broad effort?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Two quick points. First of all, there's this Washington, D.C., tendency to make the criminal code the standard of conduct for elected officials. That's not the test. The question is whether the attorney general and his department behaved in a manner that reflected well of the independence of the Justice Department.

Second of all, it's a very important point. The attorney general indicated over and over again that these firings were for performance-based reasons. That rationale has collapsed a long, long time ago. It's very clear, once again, that outside political pressure was brought to bear and that U.S. attorneys may have feared that they had to be on the good side of other individuals.

So the problem is, we can't get to the end of this cloud under the current regime at the Department of Justice. That's why Congressman Adam Schiff and I from California have introduced a no-confidence resolution in the House. That's why you have a no-confidence resolution in the Senate, because we no longer have confidence -- over 100 of our colleagues have signed that as co-sponsors -- don't have confidence that the attorney general is preserving the independence of the departments.

Another quick point. If Monica Goodling acknowledged that she used political considerations with respect to the hiring of career AUSAs, then how can we not believe that political considerations were probably used to select the U.S. attorneys? It's a state of mind. And if you've got that state of mind and your administration has that state of mind, I don't think it just fades out.

It was there for some of these AUSAs and some of these other appointments Goodling was involved with. It was also there, frankly, with these U.S. attorneys...

MARGARET WARNER: So let me just clarify. And if you could be brief, because I want to get back to your colleague. Is what you heard today -- do you think it's actually, as a practical matter, going to bear on the question of whether Alberto Gonzales stays or goes as attorney general?

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Yes, because there's a continuing cloud that did not lift today. The attorney general serves at the pleasure of the president, and right now he is not serving his president or the Department of Justice well.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Lungren, on that point.

REP. DAN LUNGREN: Let me just say this -- and I think it's an important point -- there is too much of a tendency in this environment to try and criminalize political disputes. That's been the effort here. They have found no basis for criminality, so the suggestion is now a vote of no confidence. Who knows what is next?

The fact of the matter is, we ought to look at the way a department operates. We ought to have proper oversight, but to go beyond and try and make claims of criminal activity I think is beyond the pale, is a waste of our money, a waste of our time, and actually distracts us from the people's business.

MARGARET WARNER: All Right, Congressman Dan Lungren, Congressman Artur Davis, thank you both.

REP. DAN LUNGREN: Thank you.

REP. ARTUR DAVIS: Thank you.