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Roadblock in attorney firing probe

The White House delays data; Democrats threaten subpoenas.

A `Game Of Chicken'

Another Republican says the attorney general should resign.

March 17, 2007|Richard A. Serrano and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and the Bush administration hit an impasse Friday in the probe into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, with White House officials delaying decisions to turn over documents or allow officials to testify and the House Judiciary Committee threatening subpoenas to force them to comply.

As speculation mounted that Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales' job was in jeopardy, another Republican suggested it would be best if he stepped down. "It is ultimately the president's decision, but perhaps it would benefit this administration if the attorney general was replaced with someone with a more professional focus rather than personal loyalty," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). He also said there had been "a pattern of arrogance in this administration."

White House and Justice Department officials said no announcement was imminent on Gonzales' status.

Also Friday, a lawyer for D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff who has been at the center of the controversy, issued a statement seeking to dispel the notion that Sampson had withheld from superiors information about plans to fire U.S. attorneys.

"The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing the possible replacement of several U.S. attorneys since approximately 2005 was well known to a number of other senior officials at the department, including others who were involved in preparing the department's testimony to Congress," Bradford Berenson said.

Berenson also took issue with the explanation that Gonzales offered Tuesday for Sampson's resignation. Gonzales told reporters that "the mistake" Sampson had made was "that information that he had was not shared with individuals within the department" who were going to testify before Congress.

Some members of Congress have criticized the Justice Department over what they said was misleading or incomplete testimony about the fired prosecutors.

"Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information," Berenson said. "He resigned because, as chief of staff, he felt he had let the attorney general down in failing to appreciate the need for ... a more effective political response to the unfounded accusations of impropriety."

On Capitol Hill, Democrats said they were losing patience with the administration, especially as the release of a separate batch of documents from the Justice Department, expected Friday, was postponed until Monday.

"The White House is playing a dangerous game of chicken," said Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), chairwoman of the House subcommittee leading the probe. "The White House cannot ignore this investigation."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he would schedule votes on subpoenas Thursday for two key players in the burgeoning scandal -- Bush political advisor Karl Rove and ex-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers.

It appears from documents released this week and other White House statements that Rove and Miers were discussing the termination of all or some of the 93 federal prosecutors as early as two years ago.

"The committee must take steps to ensure that we are not being stonewalled or slow-walked on this matter," Conyers said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading the Senate's probe, said: "We hope that this delay is not a signal they will not cooperate. The story keeps changing, which neither does them or the public any good."

At the White House, officials said they were not in a position to respond to the request for documents and witnesses until next week.

"Given the importance of the issues under consideration and the presidential principles involved, we need more time to resolve them," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, adding that officials would get back to the committee Tuesday regarding the House subpoenas.

The White House also backed away from its earlier contentions that it was Miers who first floated the idea of firing U.S. attorneys. Press Secretary Tony Snow said that "at this juncture, people have hazy memories."

"We know that Karl recollects Harriet having raised it, and his recollection is that he dismissed it as not a good idea," Snow said. "That's what we know. We don't know motivations.... I don't think it's safe to go any further than that."

Snow was asked whether Bush might have suggested the firings.

"Anything's possible," he said, "but I don't think so." He added that Bush "certainly has no recollection" of doing so.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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