McNulty responsible in U.S. attorney firings: Gonzales

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday praised his departing deputy but also said he was the one responsible for the federal prosecutor firings that have thrown the Justice Department into turmoil.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales listens to his introduction before his address to the National Press Club in Washington May 15, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Young

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the No. 2 Justice Department official, on Monday became the highest-ranking official yet to resign since the scandal erupted in January. McNulty said he was quitting to earn more money in the private sector, not because of the controversy.

In comments at the National Press Club, Gonzales said McNulty was ultimately responsible for recommending the firing of at least eight U.S. attorneys in December.

“At the end of day, the recommendations reflect the views of the deputy attorney general. He signed off on the names,” Gonzales said.

“Paul’s departure is a loss. He did a really good job,” he said.

Congressional investigators are attempting to determine if the firings were politically motivated. Gonzales and other Bush administration officials say the firings were justified, if mishandled.

McNulty told Congress in February that the federal prosecutor in Arkansas was let go so the job could be given to a former White House aide. He said the others were fired for performance-related issues.

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His testimony prompted many of the fired attorneys to publicly criticize the Justice Department.

According to documents released by the Justice Department, Gonzales aides said the attorney general was also upset by McNulty’s testimony.

McNulty’s resignation follows that of former Justice Department aide Monica Goodling and Gonzales’ former chief of staff Kyle Sampson. Both were involved in the firings.

“My understanding was that Mr. Sampson’s recommendations reflected the consensus view of senior leadership of the department, in particular the deputy attorney general,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales’ speech was interrupted by a woman who called for him to resign. She was then escorted from the room.

Gonzales has so far resisted calls to step down, and said on Tuesday that it was up to President George W. Bush to fire him or keep him on.

“At the end of the day, that is a question for the president of the United States,” he said.

Bush has expressed confidence in the attorney general.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said McNulty’s departure did not weaken Gonzales’ position.

“We certainly thank him for his service, but it certainly does not change the way in which we view the attorney general,” he said.