Congress sought cooperation from one Justice Department official and prepared to put the agency's former White House liaison under oath in a widening investigation into the politics of Justice Department decision-making.
The Senate Judiciary Committee asked Bradley Schlozman, a former senior civil rights attorney and U.S. attorney, to speak with investigators. The Justice Department, meanwhile, said it wouldn't try to prevent Congress from granting immunity to White House liaison Monica Goodling if she testifies before a committee.
Lawmakers want to talk to Schlozman and Goodling as part of an inquiry into whether the department played politics with the hiring and firing of department officials. The inquiry began as a question about whether U.S. attorneys - presidential appointees who serve as the top federal law enforcement officials in their state districts - were fired for political reasons.
It has grown, however, into an investigation of whether the agency let politics affect criminal investigations and whether officials made employment decisions for political reasons.
Political interference questioned
Lawmakers want to question Schlozman, who now works for the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, about a voter fraud lawsuit he filed against Missouri in November 2005.
Committee members said they wanted to know whether U.S. Attorney Todd Graves of Kansas City, Mo., was forced out for not endorsing that lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed. Graves resigned from his post in March 2006 and Schlozman replaced him as interim U.S. attorney.
Five days before the November 2006 election, Schlozman filed another lawsuit, this time accusing members of a liberal activist group of voter registration fraud. Justice Department policy discourages such lawsuits so close to the election.
"The committee would benefit from hearing directly from you in order to gain a better understanding of the role voter fraud may have played in the administration's decisions to retain or remove certain U.S. attorneys," Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in a letter co-signed by the committee's top Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
The letter asked Schlozman to voluntarily submit to interviews and testimony and provide documents to the committee.
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said politics do not influence decisions about whether to bring a case.
"The Justice Department brings its civil actions and criminal prosecutions based on evidence, not on politics," Boyd said. "We expect U.S. Attorneys to bring election and voter fraud cases where evidence of such fraud exists."
The Justice Department is conducting an internal review of the firings of U.S. attorneys and other decisions. As part of that investigation, the agency is reviewing whether Goodling sought to place Republicans as front-line prosecutors in state U.S. attorney districts.
Lawmakers want to question Goodling but, without a promise of immunity, she has refused. In a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., the department said it would prefer not to see an immunity deal.
"However, we understand the committee's interest in obtaining Ms. Goodling's testimony," the letter said. "Therefore, after balancing the significant public interest against the impact of the committee's actions on our ongoing investigation, we will not raise an objection or seek a deferral."
The letter was signed by Inspector General Glenn Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel to the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Committee lawyers must now send an immunity request to a federal judge for approval. Once that deal is approved, Goodling would face a contempt order if she refused to testify. Her lawyer, John M. Dowd, said Monday she would testify under such a deal.
"She'll be honest and clear and she'll work very hard to answer all questions," Dowd said.
Conyers said he would move quickly to ask a judge to approve the immunity deal and schedule a hearing.
A congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no agreement on testimony had been reached, said lawmakers were planning to hold a hearing as early as next week and hoped to secure testimony from Schlozman.