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Justice inquiry expands to include Gonzales

Democrats say his remarks to an aide were an attempt to influence her testimony.

June 15, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An internal Justice Department investigation has been expanded to include allegations that Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales attempted to shape the testimony of a former aide who played a central role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, Justice officials said in a letter released Thursday.

The investigators are examining remarks by former Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling, who testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month that a conversation she had with Gonzales in March about the U.S. attorneys matter made her feel "uncomfortable."

Goodling recounted for lawmakers how she had become distraught about the controversy and had approached Gonzales about a possible transfer. She said Gonzales began to tell her what he recalled about the process that led to the dismissals of the U.S. attorneys last year.

Goodling testified that she grew concerned that Gonzales was attempting to draw her into a conversation that might not be "appropriate" because Congress was seeking the testimony of both officials.

Democrats subsequently alleged that Gonzales was attempting to influence Goodling's testimony and might be guilty of obstructing justice.

In a letter this week responding to a Senate Judiciary Committee inquiry, the Justice Department officials overseeing the internal probe said the inquiry included Goodling's meeting with Gonzales. Glenn A. Fine, the department's inspector general, and H. Marshall Jarrett, the department's professional responsibility counsel, declined to elaborate.

Goodling's testimony was particularly troubling to some lawmakers because Gonzales had testified that he was purposely not talking with his aides about the case for fear of compromising the investigation.

A Justice Department spokesman said after Goodling's May 23 testimony that Gonzales had never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of anyone involved in the investigation. The attorney general's remarks to Goodling were "intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life," the spokesman said.

The development is the latest expansion of the investigation, which was launched to examine the motives and procedures used to justify the prosecutors' firings.

Many Democrats and some Republicans have called for Gonzales' resignation, but he continues to have the support of President Bush and Senate Democrats were unable to muster enough votes this week for a vote of no confidence.

Investigators also are looking at whether officials violated federal civil service laws by considering applicants' political activities when hiring career Justice Department employees and immigration judges.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said he hoped the White House and Justice Department would not interfere with the investigation.

"The last time an internal investigation at the Department of Justice got too close for comfort, the White House shut it down," Leahy said in a prepared statement.

He was referring to a decision by the White House to deny security clearances to lawyers at the professional-responsibility unit investigating the department's involvement in approving a warrantless electronic surveillance program begun in secret by the Bush administration. Without the clearances, that probe withered.

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