WASHINGTON – The Justice Department is investigating whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sought to improperly influence the testimony of a departing senior aide, two of its senior officials said Thursday, adding a new dimension to the troubles already besetting the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
The Justice Department officials, in a letter released Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, said their inquiry into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys includes an examination of a meeting Gonzales held in mid-March with his aide then, Monica Goodling, who testified last month that the attorney general’s comments during the session made her feel “a little uncomfortable.”
The topic of discussion at the meeting was what had happened in the months leading up to firings of the U.S. attorneys, and Gonzales recounted his recollection of events before asking for her reaction, according to Goodling’s congressional testimony in May. She said Gonzales’ comments discomfited her because both Congress and the Justice Department had already launched investigations of the dismissals.
Goodling’s account attracted attention partly because Gonzales had told Congress that he could not remember numerous details about the prosecutors’ dismissals because he had purposely avoided discussing the issue with other potential “fact witnesses.”
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse repeated Thursday a previous statement by Gonzales that the attorney general never sought to influence Goodling’s testimony. A White House spokesman also reiterated Thursday that President Bush “fully supports the attorney general,” who this week was the target of an unsuccessful “no-confidence” vote organized by Senate Democrats.
The announcement that Gonzales’ conduct would be examined came from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel of the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Fine has the authority to refer cases for possible criminal prosecution if warranted, and both he and Jarrett can recommend disciplinary action for violations of internal ethics guidelines or other rules of professional conduct.