The Bush administration, bowing to an uproar over its firing of eight federal prosecutors, agreed Thursday to tightening the law for replacing U.S. attorneys and letting Congress hear from senior officials with roles in the ousters.
“The attorney general told us the administration would not oppose our legislation requiring Senate confirmation for all U.S. attorneys,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., after a private meeting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
He and other senators said Gonzales also agreed to let five of his top aides involved in the firings talk with the committee, rather than wait for the panel to authorize subpoenas.
Six of the eight ousted prosecutors told House and Senate committees on Tuesday they were dismissed without explanation. Some said the dismissals followed calls from members of Congress — Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, New Mexico Republicans — concerning sensitive political corruption investigations.
Others said they feared the Justice Department would retaliate against them for talking with reporters and giving lawmakers information about their dismissals.
The meeting with Gonzales occurred a few hours after Sen. Arlen Specter, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, dealt Gonzales and his department a public lashing for the controversy.
Specter said the attorney general wrongly besmirched the fired U.S. attorneys by saying most of them had been dismissed for poor performance and calling the uproar an “overblown personnel matter” Thursday in a column Gonzales wrote in USA Today.
“I hardly think that it’s a personnel matter,” Specter, Philadelphia’s former federal prosecutor, said. “And I hardly think that it’s been overblown.”
He also suggested Gonzales might suffer a similar professional fate as the fired prosecutors.
“One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later,” Specter said.
Rove: 'A political stink'
The message apparently hadn’t reached the White House.
“My view is this is unfortunately a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it,” presidential adviser Karl Rove on Thursday told a crowd of more than 700 at an event hosted by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
Still unclear is whether Gonzales will allow his aides to speak with the Senate panel in private or at a public hearing. The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday also demanded to speak with the officials.
They are: Michael Elston, Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Bill Mercer and Mike Battle.
Sampson is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ chief of staff, Elston is staff chief to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Mercer is associate attorney general. Goodling is Gonzales’ senior counsel and White House liaison, and Battle is the departing director of the office that oversees the 93 U.S. attorneys.
The developments came two days after the fired prosecutors told their stories during eight hours of hearings by the Senate panel and the House Judiciary Committee.
The proceedings turned into a display of mudslinging that several Republicans said made them cringe.
The fired prosecutors insisted they had stellar records and didn’t deserve the Justice Department saying most of them were replaced for poor performance.
Reversing the Justice Department’s previously-stated policy of not commenting publicly on personnel matters, William Moschella, a deputy attorney general, then recited before TV cameras the shortcomings of each of the ousted U.S. attorneys.
Democrats blame firings on Patriot Act
In private Thursday, Specter offered Gonzales some stiff advice: Acknowledge that the matter is serious.
“And that he take the next step and realize that there is a significant blemish on the records of these individuals,” Specter told reporters, referring to the prosecutors. Further, “That he acknowledge that the problem arose because he failed to state the reasons why these people were asked to resign.”
Gonzales refused to comment as he exited the private meeting.
Democrats felt the administration had taken advantage of a change in the Patriot Act that took effect a year ago, which lets the attorney general appoint federal prosecutors indefinitely, without Senate confirmation.
Gonzales has denied that was his intent and said he will submit the names of all appointees to the Senate approval process.
Nonetheless, he told senators at Thursday’s meeting that the administration would not try to block legislation designed to reverse the change in the law. Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the bill would impose a 120-day deadline on attorneys general for the nomination and Senate confirmation of appointees to any of the nation’s federal prosecutors’ posts. After 120 days, appointment authority would go to federal district courts.
Previously, the administration said 120 days was an unreasonably short time.
Separately Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee demanded interviews with the five Justice Department officials and documents connected with the firings.