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Democrats postpone Gonzales' chance to testify

Senate Democrats postponed on Thursday Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' first chance to testify in his own defense over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
Fired Prosecutors
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales enters the room at the start of a round table discussion with law enforcement officials about his Project Safe Childhood initiative in Boston, Friday afternoon, March 30, 2007.Stephan Savoia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Senate Democrats have postponed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' first chance to testify in his own defense over the firings of eight federal prosecutors.

The decision to shelve next week's Senate Appropriations hearing frustrated the White House, which wants Gonzales to quickly give lawmakers his side of the story amid calls for his resignation.

But Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md, said the political firestorm should be resolved before Gonzales talks about the Justice Department's spending plan for next year.

"It would be very difficult in this environment to give the department's budget request the attention it deserves until the Senate has examined the department's leadership failures," said Mikulski, who heads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that had planned to hear from Gonzales on April 12.

The delay means Gonzales won't appear publicly on Capitol Hill until April 17 — which even Republicans are calling a "make or break" performance — to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the firings.

Administration disappointed
White House spokesman Tony Fratto called the delay disappointing. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said it was regrettable.

"The attorney general has said that he would testify in hearings regarding Department of Justice appropriations, U.S. attorneys, or other issues of interest to the Senate whenever they could be scheduled," Fratto said.

Gonzales has been forced to clarify his role in the firings after first saying, on March 13, he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." That statement was later contradicted by documents and testimony by Kyle Sampson, formerly the attorney general's top aide.

Sampson told the Senate Judiciary committee that Gonzales was briefed regularly about the firings and "this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign."

Gonzales says he was not involved in selecting which prosecutors to dismiss and largely relied on Sampson to orchestrate the firings.

"With the attorney general's credibility hanging in doubt, he cannot talk about the funding and functioning of the Justice Department until he clears the air on U.S. attorneys," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

Leahy's demands
The delay came as Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., demanded that Gonzales produce "a full and complete account of the development of the plan to replace United States attorneys and all the specifics of your role in connection with that matter."

The records sought by Leahy include several hundred documents that Senate investigators have been allowed to view but not to obtain copies of or to take notes on, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing an unnamed Senate aide. The material concerns U.S. attorneys who were ousted and some who were retained and was withheld from previous releases for privacy reasons, according to an unnamed Justice official cited by the newspaper.

He also asked for the information at least two days before the hearing, but added that "nothing prevents you from providing" it earlier. And Leahy criticized Gonzales for failing to answer about 200 written questions following his January appearance before the committee. At the time, he was asked about the firings; a secret court's oversight of spying on suspected terrorists, and FBI leaks in corruption investigations.

"You would not tolerate this kind of response time in a Justice Department investigation where months go by without answers and when those answers are finally provided they are outdated or superseded by events," Leahy wrote. "That is not conducive to effective oversight."

Roehrkasse, the Justice spokesman, said the department submitted nearly 200 responses to Leahy's committee on Thursday. "We are working as quickly as possible on completing the questions-for-the-record," Roehrkasse said.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Gonzales "will have to answer some important questions" at the hearing. "He's going to have to explain what appears to be inconsistent statements which he made when he said he was not involved in discussions when e-mails showed that he was at meetings," Specter said in Pittsburgh.

The senator said the attorney general also will have to address the FBI's illegal and improper use of national security letters to get personal data from telephone, financial and Internet companies about their American and foreign clients.

Meanwhile, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, said he is talking with the government's independent personnel counsel about whether department officials violated federal law when they included him among the fired prosecutors.

The Office of Special Counsel, which protects government whistleblowers, is looking into whether Iglesias' firing may have violated a law that prohibits discrimination against military reservists. It is also is examining possible violations of laws designed to protect whistleblowers and prohibit political activity by government employees, Iglesias said in an interview this week.