WASHINGTON — After three months of congressional hearings into the firing of U.S. attorneys, one thing became clear Wednesday: Partisan politics did play a role in Justice Department personnel decisions.
But lawmakers, who have heard from an array of young political functionaries to the U.S. attorney general himself, still do not know the extent of it.
The parade of Justice Department officials wrapped up Wednesday with the testimony of Monica M. Goodling, 33, a graduate of an evangelical Christian law school whose meteoric rise to the top of the Bush Justice Department crashed and burned this spring when she resigned and hired a lawyer.
She was senior counsel to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and was his liaison to the White House.
After weeks of wrangling about the ground rules for her appearance, Goodling -- testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution -- acknowledged that she had taken into account the political leanings of applicants for jobs at the Justice Department, including career prosecutors and immigration judges. That may have violated federal civil service laws, and Goodling conceded she may have "crossed the line."
The admission, before a packed House Judiciary Committee hearing, was the strongest evidence yet of Bush administration wrongdoing turned up by congressional investigators. For Democrats, it confirmed suspicions about the depths of politicization at the Justice Department under Gonzales.
But still fiercely disputed is the core question of whether officials were systematically assessing U.S. attorneys' fidelity to administration political goals and easing out those found wanting, as Democrats and some of the fired attorneys suspect.
The hearings have failed to produce support for Democrats' most provocative theories: that the firings were driven by a desire to find U.S. attorneys who would pursue legal action -- in voting fraud or public corruption matters -- in ways that would help Republican candidates.
Now, with Goodling and other Justice officials denying they knew of any such motives, Democrats are turning to the White House for answers. That path could be highly problematic.
The administration has declined to provide unfettered access to the likes of political operative Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers. Lawmakers are threatening to issue subpoenas for documents and testimony. The matter could be headed for court.
Democrats on Wednesday expressed indignation and frustration at the state of affairs.
"The only way we can get to the full truth is if Mr. Karl Rove is sitting in the very same seat that you're sitting in," Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) told Goodling. "And he needs to be here. And he needs to be here posthaste."
While portraying herself as a department loyalist who considered her colleagues part of an extended family, Goodling also lobbed new and explosive charges against Gonzales and Paul J. McNulty, the outgoing deputy attorney general.
Goodling recounted one conversation she had with Gonzales during her final days at the department that suggested the attorney general may have attempted to coordinate with her his version of the events leading up to the firing of the eight prosecutors.
Goodling said Gonzales reviewed the story of the firings with her in March at a meeting she requested in his office to discuss her future.
She said she was "paralyzed" and "distraught" by the swirling controversy and asked Gonzales for a transfer. The attorney general said he would consider the request.
"He then proceeded to say, 'Let me tell you what I can remember,' and he laid out for me his general recollection ... of some of the process regarding the replacement of the U.S. attorneys," Goodling said. "He laid out a little bit of it, and then he asked me ... if I had any reaction to his iteration."
"It made me a little uncomfortable," Goodling continued.
Democrats seized on the exchange, questioning whether Gonzales was attempting to coordinate stories with his former aide and possibly even to obstruct justice.
Gonzales has told lawmakers that he had not discussed the dismissals with others involved at the department for fear that it might compromise the integrity of the investigation.
"Do you think, Ms. Goodling, the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?" asked Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).
Goodling said no but that the encounter left her speechless. "I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having, and so I just ... didn't say anything," she said.
Senate Democrats offered a harsher assessment. "At the very least, the attorney general may have misled the Senate Judiciary Committee," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading Gonzales critic, said in a statement issued after the House hearing. "At worst, he may have tried to influence Ms. Goodling's testimony."