WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Justice Department investigation into the firings of U.S. attorneys is looking at whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales inappropriately discussed the ousters in a meeting his former White House liaison called ``uncomfortable.''
The two Justice officials leading the probe confirmed, in a letter released Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, that they were examining the March meeting between Gonzales and former aide Monica M. Goodling.
``This is to confirm that the scope of our investigation does include this matter,'' Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote in the short letter, dated Wednesday.
Last month, Goodling testified before a House inquiry that Gonzales sought to review the sequence of events in the controversial firings in a brief meeting in his office shortly before she resigned from the Justice Department. She questioned whether it was a conversation they should be having at a time when lawmakers were focusing on conflicting accounts about the dismissals.
``It made me a little uncomfortable,'' Goodling testified at the May 23 House Judiciary Committee hearing. ``I just did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened.''
Gonzales has said he was merely trying to comfort Goodling during an awkward moment.
But lawmakers pounced on Goodling's account as possible evidence that Gonzales tried to align her story with his and whether he was truthful in his own congressional testimony. In April, Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee he didn't know the answers to some questions about the firings because he was steering clear of aides _ such as Goodling _ who were likely to be questioned.
With that in mind, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel's top Republican, asked Justice investigators whether the meeting was being looked at as part of the internal probe.
Fine and Jarrett have already expanded their initial inquiry of the firings to include allegations that Goodling, and possibly other aides, let politics play a part in hiring career prosecutors _ a violation of federal law. The internal investigation, expected to be completed and released in upcoming months, is also looking into hiring practices within the department's Civil Rights division. Democrats complain the division has been staffed with prosecutors who have strong political resumes but little civil rights experience.
Leahy, reacting to the Justice investigators' letter, said he hopes the administration will let the internal inquiry run its course without interference. He referred to an investigation last year by Jarrett's office into the warrantless terrorist wiretapping program, that the White House shut down by refusing to give Justice officials security clearances needed to do their work.
``This internal investigation is an important step in getting to the truth behind this matter, and they should be allowed to do their jobs without interference from this administration,'' Leahy said in a statement.