WASHINGTON – As he steps out on a speech-giving tour at college campuses, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may soon wish he was still talking to hostile congressional committees.
Gonzales, who resigned under fire two months ago from the Justice Department, was booed, heckled and called a criminal and a liar by students while giving a speech this week at the University of Florida. At one point, someone wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and a black hood calmly walked onstage and stood next to Gonzales as he was speaking.
For his part, Gonzales defended the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects and did not engage the rowdy crowd, which included supporters as well.
“No one is perfect,” he said. “What is important is that we identify our mistakes and correct them.”
It was Gonzales’ first steps on a trail well-trod by former politicians and celebrities: speeches for cash. For his appearance Monday in Gainesville, Fla., Gonzales earned $40,000. He’ll make another $30,000, plus an additional $5,000 in travel, reception and security expenses, at a Feb. 19 speech at Washington University in St. Louis.
Neil Patel, president of the undergraduate students association at Washington University, said his campus invited Gonzales after being approached by a speakers bureau seeking audiences for the former attorney general.
“One of our goals this year was to make the campus politically active,” said Patel, 21, a Miami native. “We figured we’d try to get into the activism early and bring in a speaker who would incite a lot of discussion, and probably bring a lot of dissent.”
Coming up with the cash to pay Gonzales’ fee was not easy, Patel said.
Campus groups relying on student fees generally bankroll such speeches and “it was kind of difficult finding student groups who were willing to support him,” Patel said.
Gonzales is being offered to audiences by New York-based Greater Talent Network, the same organization that arranges speaking tours for “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell, outed CIA operative Valerie Plame and ice cream guys Ben & Jerry. Calls and e-mails to the firm, which bills itself as “America’s leading celebrity speakers bureau,” were not returned.
Despite any discomfort the speeches may bring Gonzales, their payoff comes as he faces mounting legal costs for an investigation into whether he mismanaged the Justice Department. The department’s internal inquiry is looking into allegations that he lied to lawmakers and illegally allowed politics to influence hiring and firing at the department.
Gonzales has hired defense attorney George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general, to represent him in the inquiry. Additionally, his friends and former associates are collecting donations – and reportedly seeking contributions ranging from $500 to $5,000 – for a legal defense fund should he need it.
The former attorney general’s pricey speaking fee so far has deterred at least one potential customer. Students at liberal arts school Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., considered inviting Gonzales to speak on campus next spring but could not afford paying the $30,000 to $40,000 he requested. “He has a rather substantial speaking fee,” Pomona associate dean of students Neil Gerard said. “I believe that’s dead in the water.”