WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, facing another tough week amid calls for his ouster, has offered a mea culpa to the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys for the way the Justice Department fired eight of their colleagues.
During the conference call Friday, planned as a pep talk to raise morale at a Justice Department tainted by the firings and the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act, Gonzales apologized for how the dismissals were handled and for suggesting there were problems with the prosecutors' job performances, according to an official familiar with the conversation.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details of the call, said Gonzales did not apologize for firing the eight U.S. attorneys, a decision he and President Bush have defended.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Saturday the call was set up to allow Gonzales to reiterate "how important the U.S. attorneys are to him as his representatives in the communities they serve and as prosecutors charged with protecting their communities from violent criminals, drug dealers and predators."
The call was made the same day that his former top aide, who resigned last week amid the controversy, denied that he purposefully withheld information from Justice Department officials who misled Congress about the firings.
Kyle Sampson, the attorney general's former chief of staff, said in a statement released by his lawyer that several senior officials were aware the Justice Department and the White House "had been discussing the subject since the election" of 2004.
E-mail exchanges involving Sampson and others, including officials at the White House, support Sampson's assertion, which contradicts claims by Gonzales that he had been in the dark about the way his former top aide had carried out the dismissals and that there were not political motives behind the firings. The e-mails indicate discussions about the dismissals involved Gonzales while he was still White House counsel in late 2004 or early 2005.
Congressional Democrats allege that some U.S. attorneys were purged for either investigating Republicans or failing to pursue cases against Democrats. Top Justice Department officials told Congress that the dismissals were based on the prosecutors' performance.
As the dispute has escalated, Republicans, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California and Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire have joined Democrats in calling for his resignation.
"The attorney general cannot continue to serve in this capacity," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Saturday in Chicago.
"The attorney general has lost the confidence of the American people as well as members of Congress," Durbin said. "I don't believe he can restore it. I think it's time for the president to acknowledge that fact and ask for his resignation."
Bush "has full confidence in the attorney general," White House spokesman Blair Jones said Saturday. The week ahead poses several more risks for Gonzales. On Monday, the Justice Department plans to turn over to Congress more documents that could provide more details of the role agency officials - including Gonzales - and top White House officials played in planning the prosecutors' dismissals. On Tuesday, the White House is expected to announce whether it will let former White House counsel Harriet Miers, political strategist Karl Rove and other presidential advisers testify before Congress - and whether it will release more documents to lawmakers, including additional e-mails and other items. That decision was to be made on Friday, but the White House asked for more time. On Thursday, lawmakers are scheduled to quiz Gonzales about his agency's budget request, but likely will ask questions about the scandal, too. Also on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote on whether to authorize subpoenas for Miers; her deputy, William K. Kelley; and Rove, who said the controversy is being fueled by "superheated political rhetoric." The panel already has approved using subpoenas, if necessary, for Justice Department officials and J. Scott Jennings, deputy to White House political director Sara Taylor, who works for Rove. And if Gonzales doesn't have enough on his plate, two congressional panels are holding hearings on the FBI's misuse of the USA Patriot Act to secretly pry out personal information about Americans. A Newsweek poll released on Saturday indicated that a majority of the public - 58 percent - believes the firing of the U.S. attorneys was politically motivated. Fewer than one-third of the 1,001 adults surveyed on March 14 and 16, want Gonzales to stay in his job. Slightly more than one-third say he should quit. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. AP-CS-03-17-07 2043EDT
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