WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, facing new calls to resign, told skeptical U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that “nothing improper occurred” in his mass firing of federal prosecutors last year, but acknowledged the process was flawed.
“While reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys is justified and should stand,” Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is attempting to determine if the ousters were politically motivated.
During several hours of questioning, some of the toughest remarks came from Gonzales’ fellow Republicans, who pointedly agreed with him that he had mishandled the ousters.
“The purpose of this Senate oversight hearing is to determine this committee’s judgment as to whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should continue in that capacity,” said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s ranking Republican.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, told Gonzales: “I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.”
The attorney general fired eight of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys last year, seven of them on December 7. Lawmakers said even if the dismissals were justified -- prosecutors serve at the pleasure of a president -- the firings had undermined confidence in Gonzales and his Justice Department.
Gonzales admitted mistakes and apologized to the dismissed U.S. attorneys for letting their ousters become “an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle.”
But he added: “Let me be clear about this: while the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred.”
President George W. Bush has voiced confidence in Gonzales but has said he needs to answer questions about shifting and conflicting explanations about why the prosecutors were fired.
Gonzales’ Justice Department initially said the dismissals were largely performance related but later said they involved policy differences. Recently released documents show loyalty to Bush was also a factor.
Under questioning from lawmakers wanting to know why each of the prosecutors was sacked, Gonzales said concerns about them ranged from their professional judgments to commitment to pursue obscenity, death penalty and immigration cases.
“Mr. Attorney General, most of this is a stretch,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
“It’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House and we made up reasons to fire them,” Graham said.
The plan to fire U.S. attorneys originated in the White House shortly after Bush was re-elected in November 2004. One of the ousted prosecutors was replaced by a former aide to Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser.
Congress and the administration are locked in a battle over what Justice Department and White House documents dealing with the dismissals will be provided. Congress also wants to hear from Rove and other White House aides. Bush has vowed to oppose any attempt to compel sworn testimony from White House staffers.
Gonzales appeared before the committee three weeks after his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, testified to the same panel that the attorney general was more deeply involved in the firings than Gonzales had initially acknowledged.
Subsequently, Gonzales modified his stand. He said he did participate in discussions about the firings despite earlier statements to the contrary. He also said his role was largely limited to signing off on dismissals following a department review.
FACTBOX-US Attorney General Gonzales
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky