WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ former White House liaison illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring career federal prosecutors, officials said Wednesday.
The allegations against Monica Goodling represent a potential violation of federal law and signal that a joint probe begun in March by the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility has expanded beyond the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
The revelations about Goodling were among several developments Wednesday in connection with the prosecutor firings, including a new subpoena seeking presidential adviser Karl Rove’s e-mails and new accusations from two of the dismissed U.S. attorneys.
In newly released statements, the two alleged that they were threatened by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty’s chief of staff immediately before Gonzales testified in the Senate in January.
Paul Charlton, of Phoenix, and John McKay, of Seattle, said that Michael Elston called them on Jan. 17 and offered an implicit agreement of silence by Gonzales in exchange for them continuing not to publicly discuss their removals. Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee the next day and refused to provide details about the firings.
“My handwritten and dated notes of this call reflect that I believed Mr. Elston’s tone was sinister and that he was prepared to threaten me further if he concluded I did not intend to continue to remain silent about my dismissal,” McKay wrote in response to questions from the House Judiciary Committee.
Elston’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, said the calls were intended only to reassure the two prosecutors that Gonzales did not plan to reveal their dismissals, which were not public then.
“Mike didn’t intend to intimidate anybody,” Driscoll said.
The firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year – seven of them on one day – sparked a furor in Congress as Gonzales and other Justice officials offered shifting explanations for the move. McKay and another prosecutor, David Iglesias, of New Mexico, have also alleged improper contacts from GOP lawmakers about ongoing criminal investigations, causing some Democrats to allege that some of the prosecutors were sacked for political reasons.
Lawmakers from both parties have called for Gonzales’ resignation, but President Bush has said that Gonzales will remain in his post.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey is scheduled to testify today before the House Judiciary panel.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said that as part of her job, Goodling reviewed applications for entry-level prosecutor positions in some offices headed by interim or acting U.S. attorneys. In those cases, Boyd said, Goodling “may have taken prohibited considerations into account” and “whether or not the allegation is true is currently the subject of the ongoing” investigation by the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Boyd noted that it is against federal law and internal Justice policies to consider political affiliation in hiring for nonpolitical jobs. The allegation against Goodling was referred to investigators several weeks ago by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, of Alexandria, Va., who was serving temporarily as Gonzales’ chief of staff.
Also Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to Gonzales seeking all of Rove’s e-mails in Justice Department custody related to the prosecutor firings. The subpoena is the second to be formally served on Gonzales in the probe of the prosecutor dismissals.
The subpoena to Gonzales from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., demands copies of any e-mails sent by Rove – through either the White House or the Republican National Committee – related to the appointment, performance or replacement of U.S. attorneys and career or political personnel at the Justice Department.