Gonzales's testimony leaves senators frustrated

Not recalling key dates and meetings, the US attorney general says he had a 'limited' role in the controversial firing of eight federal attorneys.

By , Staff writer

Key senators from both parties appear to have a message for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: You haven't regained our confidence.

At a tough April 19 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmaker after lawmaker reacted with various degrees of disbelief of or frustration with the attorney general's explanations of events surrounding the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.

Mr. Gonzales's appearance before the committee has been widely viewed in Washington as a crucial point in his long struggle to get past the attorney firing furor.

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He has already stayed in his job longer than many pundits have predicted he might, given the intensity of the political storm. But even his chief backer – President Bush – has said that Gonzales has repair work to do on his relationship with Capitol Hill.

At Thursday's hearing, many senators seemed especially frustrated with Gonzales's continued insistence that he had played a minor role in the firing process – something that's been disputed in public testimony from other current and former Department of Justice witnesses.

"I am not satisfied with his answers," said panel chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont after three hours of testimony.

Gonzales's protestations of uninvolvement are "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts," said ranking minority member and former chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania.

Gonzales did say that he had discussions with White House political adviser Karl Rove and Mr. Bush himself that dealt with GOP complaints that voter-fraud cases weren't being pursued by a number of US attorneys, including David Iglesias in New Mexico.

In addition, the attorney general had told other Justice Department officials that US Attorney Carol Lam, in San Diego, needed to bring more immigration cases.

But these actions did not constitute involvement in the attorney dismissal process, insisted Gonzales, despite the fact that both Mr. Iglesias and Ms. Lam were among those fired.

That's because he didn't realize those discussions might have a bearing on which attorneys would eventually appear on the dismissal list, according to Gonzales. "I did not view [them] at the time as part of the review process," said Gonzales.

The discussions were just part of his overall job of managing the department, said Gonzales.

Overall, his role in the firings was "limited," said the attorney general. He did make the overall decision to go forward with the dismissals, but when he did so, he hadn't reviewed the performance records of the prosecutors who were about to lose their jobs.

Asked when he'd made the firing decision, Gonzales testified that he could not recall the specific date.

Many of the attorney general's replies were framed with the care of a veteran attorney, which of course Gonzales is. That gave some of them a disconcerting ring.

"I now understand there was a conversation with myself and the president," said Gonzales at one point.

The attorney general acknowledged that his calender listed a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting with top Justice officials at which the firings were discussed. But "I have no recollection of that meeting," said Gonzales.

Gonzales retains friends in the Senate. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, among others, defended him during his April 19 appearance.

But many Republicans on the panel were critical of Gonzales's performance or the firings in general.

"It's clear to me that some of these [fired attorneys] just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina.

"The Department of Justice needs a vigorous leader. I don't think we'll have a vote to remove him, but he'll have to evaluate how effective he thinks he can be," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama.

Gonzales deserves more time to show he can still do his job, said Senator Sessions. "He deserves to have the ink dry [on the hearing transcript] a little bit."

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report. Material from wire services was also used in this report.

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