House Democrats pressed Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at a hearing on Thursday to provide specifics about why federal prosecutors were dismissed, but he stuck to his past assertions that, although ineptly handled, the dismissals were justified and appropriate.
Democrats at the hearing of the House Judiciary Committee tried but failed to elicit greater clarity about the specific reasons for removing individual prosecutors. Gonzales offered little new information, testifying again that his role in the firings was limited.
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the panel, seemed to voice the frustration among Democrats over Gonzales’ testimony, saying, “Tell us, just tell us how the US. attorney termination list came to be, and who suggested putting most of these U.S. attorneys on the list and why.”
Gonzales replied by repeating his assertion that the firing list represented “the consensus recommendation of the senior leadership of the department.”
“OK, in other words, you don’t know,” Conyers said.
Gonzales signaled at the outset of the hearing that there would be few bombshells. He said that since he testified three weeks ago at a Senate hearing on the firings, “My feelings and recollections about this matter haven’t changed.”
Rep. Linda Sanchez, a California Democrat who has led the House inquiry, expressed frustration over the inability of the Justice Department to fully explain the dismissals. She said that congressional investigators had interviewed most of the Justice Department officials involved, but added, “Not one has been able to recall or take responsibility for how and why these U.S. attorneys were added to the firing list.”
Republicans on the House committee were more supportive of Gonzales than their counterparts in the Senate, where some Republicans were scathingly critical after his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Several House Republicans asked no questions about the firings, instead praising Gonzales’ performance or quizzing him on unrelated issues like illegal immigration, copyright policy, cyber crime and terrorism.
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the panel, said, “As we have gone forward, the list of accusations has grown, but the evidence of genuine wrongdoing has not,” adding, “If there are no fish in this lake we should reel in our lines of questions, dock our empty boat and turn to more pressing issues.”
Gonzales at times expressed contrition for his mishandling of the dismissals, including his earlier misstatements about the process, but insisted he had acted correctly. “What I have concluded is that although the process was not as rigorous or as structured as it should have been, and while reasonable people might decide things differently, my decision to ask for the resignations of these U.S. attorneys was not based on improper reasons and therefore the decision should stand.”
Several Democrats asked Gonzales about news reports on Thursday disclosing the dismissal of a ninth U.S. attorney, Todd P. Graves in Kansas City, Mo. Graves said in interviews that he had been forced out by Justice Department officials in March 2006.