WASHINGTON – The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena Tuesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, demanding that the Justice Department turn over hundreds of pages of new or uncensored records related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
The subpoena is the first served in connection with the dismissals, and it escalates the legal confrontation between Democrats and the Bush administration, which has resisted demands for more documents and for public testimony from White House aides. It comes just a week before the embattled attorney general is scheduled to testify before the Senate, a hearing widely considered crucial to his attempt to keep his job.
House and Senate committees have authorized a series of subpoenas in recent weeks as part of their investigations of the prosecutor firings but have not issued one until now.
“We have been patient in allowing the department to work through its concerns regarding the sensitive nature of some of these materials,” Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the judiciary panel’s chairman, wrote Gonzales in a letter that accompanied the subpoena. “Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs.”
The administration immediately signaled that it might oppose the demand. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that the administration would like “to reach an accommodation with the Congress” but may fight the subpoena if an agreement cannot be negotiated.
“Much of the information that the Congress seeks pertains to individuals other than the U.S. attorneys who resigned,” Roehrkasse said. “Furthermore, many of the documents Congress is now seeking have already been available to them for review. Because there are individual privacy interests implicated by publicly releasing this information, it is unfortunate the Congress would choose this option.”
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired Dec. 7, and another was dismissed earlier in the year, as part of a plan that originated in the White House to replace some prosecutors based in part on their perceived disloyalty to President Bush and his policies. The uproar over the removals has grown amid allegations that GOP lawmakers had improper political contact with prosecutors and claims by Democrats that the firings may have been an attempt to disrupt public corruption investigations.
The subpoena issued Tuesday demands that Gonzales turn over the requested material by 2 p.m. Monday, according to a copy released by the House committee. It seeks full copies of some documents that were censored when they were previously released to Congress.
The administration characterized the subpoena as unreasonable and focused on information not germane to the U.S. attorney dismissals.
“I think the Justice Department has been working very hard to be fully responsive to the request, as the president asked them to do,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.