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Gonzales says firings not improper but claims little direct role

April 15th, 2007 10:21 pm by Associated Press



WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fighting to save his job, said in prepared Senate testimony Sunday he has "nothing to hide" in the firings of eight federal prosecutors but claimed a hazy memory about his involvement in them.


Two Republican senators said Gonzales has yet to shore up his credibility amid shifting explanations of his role in the dismissals.


Vice President Dick Cheney reaffirmed White House support for the attorney general - but left it to Gonzales to defend himself to lawmakers who have called for his resignation.


In his 25-page statement, Gonzales apologized for embarrassing the eight U.S. attorneys and their families by letting their ousters erupt into a political firestorm that has engulfed the Justice Department since January. He maintained the firings were not improper, but said he remembers having only an indirect role in the plans beyond approving them.


"I have nothing to hide, and I am committed to assuring the Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here," Gonzales said in prepared testimony released before he appears Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel, which oversees the Justice Department, is investigating whether the firings were politically motivated.


"I am sorry for my missteps that have helped to fuel the controversy," he said.


Gonzales added: "In hindsight, I would have handled this differently. ... Looking back, it is clear to me that I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous, and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way."


Cheney said he and President Bush continue to have "every confidence" in Gonzales and looked forward to hearing his testimony. Lawmakers also are questioning what role White House officials, including chief political strategist Karl Rove, played in the firings.


"This took place inside the Justice Department," Cheney said on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "The one who needs to answer to that and lay out on the record the specifics of what transpired is the attorney general, and he'll do so."


GOP Sens. Arlen Specter and Lindsey Graham said Gonzales has a difficult battle ahead in convincing the public he can lead the Justice Department.


"The No. 1 question is, is he capable of administering the Department of Justice, did he have enough hands on to know what's happening?" said Specter of Pennsylvania, the Senate panel's top Republican. "Can he explain why these individuals were asked to resign and justify the reasons for doing so?" "He's got a steep hill to climb," Specter said. "He's going to be successful only if he deals with the facts." Graham, R-S.C., said he believes Gonzales can save his job. Still, the attorney general has "an uphill struggle to re-establish his credibility with the committee given prior statements." "He needs to explain what he did and why he did it," Graham said. "There are three or four different versions of his role in this, and he needs to bring clarity to what he did and why he did it." Specter spoke on ABC's "This Week," and Graham appeared on "Fox News Sunday." In his written testimony, Gonzales claimed he vaguely remembers discussions about the firings, including being asked about at least two possible replacements for vacant U.S. attorney jobs. He also said he recalled "two specific instances" when he was told that then-White House counsel Harriet Miers was seeking updates of the Justice Department's prosecutor evaluations. He indicated he trusted his most senior aides, including Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, to select prosecutors who would be asked to resign, based on their performance. "It was to be a group of officials, including the deputy attorney general, who were much more knowledgeable than I about the performance of each U.S. attorney," he said. But Gonzales indicated he could not definitively say whether he was involved in decisions on selecting which prosecutors would be targeted. The few, brief updates on the firings he received from Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff, "focused primarily on the review process itself," Gonzales said. "During those updates, to my knowledge, I did not make decisions about who should or should not be asked to resign," Gonzales said. Sampson left the Justice Department over the controversy March 12. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 29 that he remembered discussions with Gonzales regarding "this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign." Sampson was being interviewed again Sunday by congressional investigators, said his attorney Brad Berenson. Gonzales also said he may be unable to answer all of lawmakers' questions because, trying to avoid any influence on his own testimony, he intentionally did not review transcripts of what his staff told congressional investigators in closed-door meetings. "As a result, I may be somewhat limited when it comes to providing you with all of the facts that you may desire," he said. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., one of Gonzales' most vocal critics and the first to call on the attorney general to resign, said the written remarks did little to clear up questions and contradictory statements about the firings. "Fuzzy recollections do not help us get to the bottom of what happened," Schumer said in a statement Sunday. "Evasive answers do not clear up the many contradictions uncovered so far. ‘I don't' know, ‘I don't recall' or indirect answers that avoid the questions will not do." Gonzales signaled he had no plans to step down - a decision that he has said repeatedly should be left to President Bush. He sought in his testimony to move past the prosecutors' scandal, and touted numerous Justice accomplishments under his tenure, including civil rights cases, drug smuggling crackdowns and efforts to protect children from sexual predators. "I look forward to working with you in the coming months on these topics and the department's other missions and priorities," Gonzales wrote. --- Associated Press Writers Ben Feller and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report. AP-CS-04-15-07 1726EDT


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