A senior aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has decided against testifying before lawmakers about her role in the ousters of eight federal prosecutors, the latest flare-up in the controversy surrounding the Justice Department.
Monica Goodling's announcement that she would take the Fifth Amendment to avoid possibly incriminating herself came as the embattled attorney general cast himself as misunderstood in his conflicting accounts of his involvement in the firings. Goodling is the Justice Department's liaison to the White House.
Gonzales was to be in Cincinnati and Chicago on Tuesday in the latest leg of a multistate tour to promote a crackdown on child sex abuse and soothe U.S. attorneys who might be smarting over the dismissals.
Fending off calls for his resignation, Gonzales on Monday said he was "really pained" by Republicans and Democrats who say he has lost his credibility in dealing with the firings. A growing number of critics say the dismissals were politically motivated.
He sought to stem the furor over his March 13 statement that he "never saw documents" and "never had a discussion" about the firings. His schedule for last Nov. 27 showed he participated in an hourlong meeting and approved a detailed plan on the dismissals. He maintained he was not closely involved in the firings, and did not help select which prosecutors would be told to resign.
"Let me try to be more precise about my involvement," Gonzales said in an interview with NBC News. "When I said on March 13th that I wasn't involved, what I meant was that I had not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign."
"His word is tarnished," Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said of Gonzales.
The House voted 329-78 Monday to strip the attorney general of his power to indefinitely appoint federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation. The Senate already approved similar legislation.
President Bush, though standing by Gonzales, has signaled he will not veto the legislation.
A perjury trap?
Goodling, on voluntary leave from the Justice Department, was one of several aides closely involved in planning the firings. She was called to testify as part of a Senate inquiry, and her refusal appeared to surprise Justice officials who hours earlier said department aides would fully cooperate with the investigation.
"I have decided to follow my lawyer's advice and respectfully invoke my constitutional right," Goodling said in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Her attorney, John Dowd, said the Senate inquiry amounts to a perjury trap for his client. "One need look no further than the recent circumstances and proceedings involving Lewis Libby," Dowd said.
Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted earlier this month for perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak case.
"The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
In Denver, Gonzales met with at least three area U.S. attorneys - representing Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. He scheduled such meetings around the country to answer questions the prosecutors might have and listen to their concerns.
"I would describe the meeting as extremely positive," said Matt Mead, Wyoming's federal prosecutor. He said about eight other U.S. attorneys also attended.