WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met with senior aides on Nov. 27 to review a plan to fire a group of U.S. attorneys, according to new documents released Friday night, a disclosure that contradicts Gonzales’ previous statement that he was not involved in “any discussions” about the dismissals.
Justice Department officials also announced Friday night that the department’s inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility have launched a joint investigation into the firings, including an examination of whether any of the removals were improper and whether any Justice officials misled Congress about them.
The hour-long November meeting in the attorney general’s conference room included Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and four other senior Justice officials, including the Gonzales aide who coordinated the firings, then-chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson, records show.
Documents showing the previously undisclosed meeting appear to conflict with remarks by Gonzales at a March 13 news conference where he portrayed himself as a CEO who had delegated to Sampson responsibility for the details of firing eight U.S. attorneys.
“I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on,” Gonzales said.
Spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said Friday night that there is no “inconsistency” between the Nov. 27 meeting and Gonzales’ remarks. She argued that Gonzales was simply emphasizing at the news conference that he was not involved in the details of Sampson’s plans.
Scolinos also said there is no evidence that participants at the meeting reviewed a draft memo of the firing plan, authored by Sampson, that was dated six days earlier and widely distributed among Justice and White House officials.
According to Scolinos and her deputy, Brian Roehrkasse, there is also no evidence that individual U.S. attorneys were discussed at the meeting.
The documents were among 283 pages of new records released by Justice on Friday night. That development followed Sampson’s agreement earlier Friday to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Sampson, who resigned March 12 after the discovery of e-mails contradicting claims that the White House was not closely involved in the firings, may be the official best positioned to describe the roles top Justice and White House officials played in the ouster of the federal prosecutors.
The Justice Department also said Friday that Monica Goodling, a senior counselor to Gonzales who worked closely with Sampson on the firings, took an indefinite personal leave from her job last Monday. A Justice official said she is still employed there but it is not clear when she will return.
Seven U.S. attorneys were fired on Dec. 7; one had been sacked months earlier. The Justice Department’s shifting explanations of the dismissals have sparked an uproar in Congress, where a handful of lawmakers from both parties have called for Gonzales’ resignation. But President Bush this week expressed support for Gonzales.
Key Democrats reacted strongly Friday night to news that Gonzales had presided at the planning meeting on the dismissals less than two weeks before they were carried out.
“The attorney general, more than any other Cabinet officer, must always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the first lawmaker to call for Gonzales’ resignation. “If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general.”
Sampson’s planned testimony complicates the standoff that developed this week between Democrats and the Bush administration, which has refused demands for public testimony from presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides. The House and Senate judiciary committees have authorized, but not issued, subpoenas for the testimony.