WASHINGTON — Paul J. McNulty, a career Republican operative who rose to the No. 2 spot at the Department of Justice, announced his resignation Monday in the midst of the widening scandal over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
His exit marks the fourth resignation since the matter became public this year. It is all the more dramatic because of his high rank -- deputy attorney general -- in the Bush administration.
McNulty has admitted misleading Congress about the reasons for the dismissals. Though he maintained he was out of the loop about the terminations, documents showed he attended a crucial meeting with Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and others to review a final list of prosecutors to be fired.
Gonzales, in a written statement Monday evening on McNulty's resignation, made no mention of the firings. He said Justice would be "losing a dynamic and thoughtful leader" when McNulty formally stepped down this summer. He said McNulty had been instrumental in efforts against corporate fraud and had made "significant contributions to establishing the rule of law in Iraq."
According to Justice officials, McNulty announced his resignation earlier in the day in San Antonio, where he was meeting with federal prosecutors.
He did not release a public statement about his departure, nor did he say whether it was related to the controversy over the fired prosecutors.
His three-paragraph resignation letter to Gonzales said he was stepping down for personal reasons.
"The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career," he wrote.
McNulty's departure invigorated Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill calling for Gonzales to leave as well.
"It seems ironic that Paul McNulty -- who at least tried to level with the committee -- goes, while Gonzales, who stonewalled the committee, is still in charge," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of those pressing for a purge at Justice. "This administration owes us a lot better."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said McNulty's resignation would not make the scandal disappear. Democrats still want to know who drew up the list of prosecutors to be fired and how much political direction came from the White House, he said.
"Democrats will continue our aggressive investigation into this serious matter," Emanuel said. "Resignations are no substitute for the truth."
A Washington fixture who was a legal advisor during the Republican-led impeachment drive against President Clinton a decade ago, McNulty went on to work for President Bush's transition team after the 2000 election, directing the team's efforts in building a new Justice Department.
On Sept. 14, 2001, he took over as the top U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., and was assigned some of the administration's first and most significant prosecutions in the war on terrorism.
His office was praised by many for winning a 20-year prison sentence for John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, in 2002. Last year, his team sought a death sentence for avowed Al Qaeda fighter Zacarias Moussaoui, but the jury returned a sentence of life in prison with no parole.
McNulty moved to Justice headquarters in Washington and, in March of last year, was sworn in as deputy attorney general. (He had been acting deputy attorney general since November 2005.)
As Gonzales' right-hand man, McNulty was responsible for running Justice's day-to-day operations.
Some Justice insiders said relations between Gonzales and McNulty had grown tense since the scandal over the firings blew up a few months ago. The men have never been particularly close; McNulty was not Gonzales' first choice to be his deputy. They also come from different traditions: McNulty's history is as a Capitol Hill staffer, whereas Gonzales came from Texas with Bush.
Even though as deputy he was responsible for overseeing the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys, McNulty was largely left out of the loop when Gonzales in 2005 ordered his chief of staff to identify top prosecutors for dismissal. McNulty has said he was not aware of the plans until last fall, two months before the firings were executed.
He and Gonzales, in separate testimony before Congress, were at odds for some of the explanations behind the firings. McNulty testified that the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., was moved aside to make room for a protege of White House political advisor Karl Rove. That testimony initially infuriated Gonzales, who at first insisted that all the firings were performance-related. Eventually, McNulty's position proved to be correct.
As Justice officials began turning over documents and e-mails to congressional investigators, strong indications developed that the ousters were politically designed. Evidence showed that some of the fired prosecutors had not moved quickly enough on cases to satisfy some Republican lawmakers.