Monica Goodling, a Justice Department official involved in the firings of federal prosecutors, will refuse to answer questions at upcoming Senate hearings, citing Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, her lawyer said Monday.
"The potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real," said the lawyer, John Dowd.
He said that members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees seem already to have made up their minds that wrongdoing has occurred in the firings.
Goodling, who is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' senior counsel and White House liaison, took a leave of absence this month. She was subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee along with several of Gonzales' other top aides.
There have been questions about whether Goodling and others misinformed Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty about the firings just before he testified before the Senate committee in February.
Dowd said that a senior Justice Department official had told a member of the Senate committee that he was misled by Goodling and others before testifying.
The potential for taking the blame for the department's bungled response "is very real," Dowd said. "One need look no further than the recent circumstances and proceedings involving Lewis Libby," he said, a reference to the recent conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff in the CIA leak case.
Gonzales' support eroding
The disclosure comes even as the White House stood by Alberto Gonzales on Monday, while support for the embattled attorney general erodes on Capitol Hill amid new questions about his honesty.
Three key Republican senators sharply questioned Gonzales' truthfulness over the firings last fall of eight federal prosecutors. Two more Democrats on Sunday joined the list of lawmakers calling for Gonzales' ouster.
At issue is Gonzales' March 13 denial that he participated in discussions or saw any documents about the firings, despite documents that show he attended a Nov. 27 meeting with senior aides on the topic, where he approved a detailed plan to carry out the dismissals.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Gonzales "might be accused of being imprecise in what he was saying," but maintained that the attorney general was not closely involved in the firings.
"I understand the concern. I understand that people might think that there are inconsistencies," Perino said. "But as I read it, I think that he has been consistent."
The White House is placing the onus on Gonzales to explain his action to lawmakers, but he is not scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee until April 17 - three weeks away.
"I grant you, I think that that seems like a long time," Perino said. "But I don't think I would read into that that the Justice Department isn't having ongoing discussions with members of the Judiciary Committee on both the House and the Senate side, and other members who have expressed interest."
Bush did not speak to Gonzales over the weekend.
Loss of credibility
Gonzales faces the toughest test of his two-year tenure at the Justice Department with the release of documents suggesting he was more involved with the firings than he indicated earlier.
Democrats have accused the Justice Department and the White House of purging the prosecutors for political reasons. The Bush administration maintains the firings were not improper because U.S. attorneys are political appointees.
Speaking to reporters in Orlando, Fla., Sen. Bill Nelson said whether or not Gonzales was fully engaged, "he has lost all credibility with me." Nelson, D-Fla., joined the ranks Sunday of lawmakers in both parties calling for Gonzales to resign.
"Unless he has a good explanation for not only what he knew and when he knew it but also for the ineptitude of the department ... he is a goner," Nelson said of Gonzales. "I think there might be enough Republicans who are calling for his resignation, even before he takes the witness stand."
Stopping short of demanding Gonzales' resignation, Sen. Arlen Specter cited a Nov. 27 calendar entry placing the attorney general at a Justice Department meeting to discuss the dismissals. Those documents "appear to contradict" Gonzales' earlier statements that he never participated in such conversations, said Specter, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the Justice Department.
"We have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful. And if we find out he has not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on," said Specter, R-Pa.
Specter said he would wait until Gonzales' testimony before deciding whether he could continue to support the attorney general.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Gonzales has been "wounded" by the firings. "He has said some things that just don't add up," said Graham, who also is on the Senate Judiciary panel. And Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the Justice Department has continually changed its story about the dismissals.
"You cannot have the nation's chief law enforcement officer with a cloud hanging over his credibility," Hagel said.
At the same time, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida said Gonzales should step down.
At a March 13 news conference, trying to stem the furor over the firings, Gonzales said, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood."
But his Nov. 27 schedule, included in a batch of memos sent to Capitol Hill late Friday, showed he attended an hour-long meeting at which, aides said, he approved a detailed plan for executing the purge.
Since the schedule's release, Justice aides have said Gonzales meant he was not involved in selecting the prosecutors when he said he didn't participate in discussions about their firings. "He didn't say he wasn't involved," former Republican chairman Ed Gillespie said Sunday.
Also, Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah reaffirmed their earlier support for Gonzales. Hatch called Gonzales "an honest man" but added: "But let's be honest about it, the Justice Department has bungled this attorney thing."
Three of the ousted U.S. attorneys Sunday said they have concluded their firings were politically motivated.
Former prosecutors John McKay in Seattle and David Iglesias in New Mexico both said they were rebuked in private conversations for not pursuing Democrats in their states more aggressively in election-year investigations. "It is troubling, connecting those political dots," Iglesias said.
Bud Cummins, who was replaced as U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., by a Karl Rove protégé, acknowledged political appointees can be fired for no reason.
"But in this case it looks like that authority was delegated down through (former White House counsel) Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, Judge Gonzales and all the way down to a bunch of 35-year-old kids who got in a room together and tried to decide who was most loyal to the president," Cummins said.