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Files put Gonzales at meeting before prosecutors' firing

March 24, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt, Tom Hamburger and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales convened a meeting to discuss firing a group of U.S. attorneys 10 days before they were terminated, according to Justice Department documents released Friday night that could indicate Gonzales was more involved in the process than he has said previously.

The documents show that Gonzales and a group of senior aides, including Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty, met Nov. 27, to review a plan for firing the prosecutors. The dismissals were carried out Dec. 7.

The materials were among 283 new documents the Justice Department turned over Friday to congressional investigators looking into the ouster of eight U.S. attorneys amid allegations that the dismissals were politically motivated.

Justice Department officials also announced Friday night that the agency's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility had launched a joint investigation into the dismissals, including an examination of whether they were improper and whether any Justice Department officials misled Congress about the matter.

Gonzales has previously said that he was far removed from the dismissals, and that he had assigned his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, with identifying and replacing U.S. attorneys across the country who were viewed as performing poorly.

"But that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general," Gonzales said at a briefing with reporters March 13.

"I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department, obviously there are going to be decisions that I'm not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated," he said at the time.

Justice Department officials said Friday that the fact that Gonzales attended the Nov. 27 meeting was not inconsistent with his prior statements. Whether or not he was involved in the process of selecting individual prosecutors to be replaced, he would have been involved in signing off on a final plan, they said.

The meeting Gonzales attended took place in the conference room adjacent to his office at the Justice Department and lasted about an hour, according to calendar entries and e-mails released Friday.

"The meeting concerned the rollout of the plan," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. "The information available to us does not indicate there is a discussion at this meeting about which [U.S. attorneys] should or should not be included on that list."

Though officials said they could not be sure that Gonzales approved the plan at the meeting, they said it was likely he either did so at that time or in an oral conversation with Sampson sometime later.

They said they could find no other written record of Gonzales attending meetings about the firings.

Democrats pounced on the new disclosures, saying they were evidence that the administration was misleading Congress about the firings.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said the documents "put the attorney general front and center in these matters, contrary to information that had previously been provided to the public and the Congress."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is heading a Senate investigation into the firings, said: "If the facts bear out that Atty. Gen. Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general."

The documents surfaced just hours after Sampson, through his lawyer, reached an agreement to testify about the firings before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. He resigned from the department last week.

The administration has also been under pressure from some Republican lawmakers to quickly disclose the facts about the case in the hope of limiting the political fallout. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) met with White House Counsel Fred Fielding on Capitol Hill earlier Friday to impress on him that message.

The documents also helped fill what some bloggers and Democratic congressional staffers portrayed as a mysterious gap in the 3,000 pages released to the public last week. The Nov. 27 meeting fell squarely in the middle of a period between Nov. 16 and Dec. 5 in which few if any documents were disclosed. The Justice Department said the belated disclosures reflected the sheer volume of material involved and the time-consuming business of producing it all.

The documents also offered new insight into how the White House anticipated a backlash from the firings, and the hope of one Justice Department official that the prosecutors might leave quietly.

On Nov. 17, Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley e-mailed his colleagues in the administration, alerting them about the Justice Department idea of jettisoning a group of U.S. attorneys and seeking their views on the "political fallout" from such a move.

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