It's not just about fired US attorneys anymore

Congress is asking pointed questions about the role of partisanship in prosecutions, hirings at Justice Department.

Pundits for weeks have been predicting his resignation is imminent, and lawmakers from both parties have called on him to quit. But so far Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has defied critics – and shows no signs of packing his bags.

The clamor over the firings of eight US attorneys may yet force Mr. Gonzales out. Members of Congress will have another chance to publicly press for his ouster at his scheduled appearance Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee.

But even if Gonzales leaves, uproar about management at the Department of Justice is unlikely to subside. A steady stream of revelations – from allegations about partisan hiring in the Civil Rights Division to possible White House involvement in the US attorney dismissals – has seen to that.

"Congress now is sufficiently concerned that, even were he to resign, I don't think it would change things very much," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

In one sense, Gonzales's continued survival is a lesson in political power. It has been weeks since experts began to expound about how he couldn't possibly last more than a few days in office. Influential senators, including some Republicans, have made it clear that Gonzales's continued presence will affect their attitude toward Justice Department initiatives.

Yet he continues in office, with President Bush's apparent unwavering backing. Mr. Bush may well genuinely believe that his attorney general is a good man who is being smeared. After all, charges of politicization at the Justice Department are nothing new in Washington.

"In every administration there are [such] allegations very consistently," said Benjamin Wittes, a governance expert and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, at a recent seminar here on the subject.

But other calculations may be at work as well. As long as Gonzales stays in office, he remains a focus for criticism that might otherwise be directed elsewhere. There is evidence that White House political adviser Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers had input into the list of attorneys to be fired, for example.

Also, if Gonzales left, he would have to be replaced – meaning the administration might face a long confirmation battle in the Democrat-controlled Senate for his successor.

"One ... reason there has been such reluctance [by] the administration to replace [Gonzales] is that it's a very difficult squeeze now to find somebody who is both acceptable to the administration and ... is confirmable," said Mr. Wittes. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the quote.]

Yet the continued presence of Gonzales at the Justice helm is not helpful to the department, say critics. Crucial management attention is undoubtedly being diverted from day-to-day administration to the continuing controversy over the US attorney firings, say some.

Furthermore, Gonzales has been unable to dispel a perception that some Justice Department prosecutorial actions were undertaken for partisan reasons, say critics, who cite concern about morale at the department.

"I just wonder about what's going on at the Justice Department on a day-to-day basis," says Mr. Tobias.

Even if Gonzales were to leave, Democrats in Congress would undoubtedly continue to investigate the department. Events of recent days have seen to that.

The controversy is no longer just about fired US attorneys, for example. The Justice Department itself has now begun an internal investigation into whether Monica Goodling, Gonzales's White House liaison, illegally took partisan affiliation into account when hiring lower-level prosecutors.

The Senate Judiciary Committee wants to know whether a similar process occurred at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Panel members have written Civil Rights Division official Bradley Schlozman to ask about allegations that job applicants were told to scrub GOP references from their résumés.

And lawmakers continue to pursue that vexing question: Why were those US attorneys fired?

On May 4 a former deputy attorney general told a House panel that in his view only one of the eight dismissed attorneys had serious performance problems.

As second-in-command at Justice from 2003 to 2005, James Comey was the direct supervisor of US attorneys yet said he never knew that Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Gonzales, was compiling a list of prosecutors to be fired.

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