WASHINGTON – After three months of congressional hearings into the firing of U.S. attorneys, one thing became clear Wednesday: Partisan politics did play a role in Justice Department personnel decisions.
But lawmakers, who have heard from everyone from the U.S. attorney general to an array of young political functionaries, still do not know the extent of it.
The parade of Justice Department officials wrapped up Wednesday with Monica Goodling, a 33-year-old graduate of an evangelical Christian law school whose meteoric rise to the top of the Justice Department crashed and burned this spring when she resigned and hired a lawyer.
Goodling – testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution – acknowledged that she had taken into account the political leanings of applicants for jobs at the Justice Department. That may have violated federal civil service laws, and Goodling conceded she may have “crossed the line.”
The admission, before a packed House Judiciary Committee hearing, was the strongest evidence yet of Bush administration wrongdoing turned up by congressional investigators. For Democrats, it confirmed suspicions about politicization at the Justice Department under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But still fiercely disputed is whether Bush administration officials were assessing U.S. attorneys for their fidelity to administration political goals and easing out those found wanting, as some Democrats suspect.
Goodling also lobbed new and explosive charges against her old boss, Gonzales, and the deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty.
She recounted one conversation with Gonzales during her final days at the department that suggested the attorney general may have attempted to coordinate with her his version of the events leading up to the firing of the eight prosecutors. Goodling said Gonzales reviewed the story of the firings with her in March at a meeting in his office.
“He then proceeded to say, ‘Let me tell you what I can remember,’ and he laid out for me his general recollection … of some of the process regarding the replacement of the U.S. attorneys,” Goodling said. “He laid out a little bit of it, and then he asked me … if I had any reaction to his iteration,” she said.
“It made me a little uncomfortable,” Goodling testified.
Democrats seized on the exchange and questioned whether Gonzales was attempting to coordinate stories with his former top aide and possibly even to obstruct justice.
“Do you think, Ms. Goodling, the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?” asked Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala. Goodling said she did not believe so but that the encounter left her speechless. “I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having, and so I just … didn’t say anything.”
Senate Democrats offered a harsher assessment. “At the very least, the attorney general may have misled the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a leading Gonzales critic, said in a statement issued after the House committee hearing. “At worst, he may have tried to influence Ms. Goodling’s testimony.”
Goodling also said McNulty, who has testified he was largely in the dark about the events leading up to the firings, was “not fully candid” with lawmakers and gave testimony to Congress that was “incomplete or inaccurate.”
McNulty told a House panel on Feb. 6 that the decision to fire the U.S. attorneys in December was made solely by the Justice Department when, in fact, the White House had also weighed in.
McNulty, who has said he will resign this summer, has blamed Goodling and other aides for not fully briefing him on the firings before his testimony. Goodling said the allegation was “false.”
The Justice Department produced quick denials on behalf of both Gonzales and McNulty, saying neither man had acted inappropriately.
Earlier Wednesday, Goodling acknowledged that she had gone overboard in considering the political backgrounds of candidates for jobs as career prosecutors. She also said she occasionally scanned Federal Election Commission Web sites to check out applicants’ political contributions.
“You crossed the line on civil service laws, is that right?” asked Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.
“I believe I crossed the line,” Goodling replied. “But I didn’t mean to.”
She offered investigators few leads on connecting the scandal to the White House. She said she never discussed the firings with political operative Karl Rove and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.