Democrats Escalate Fight Over Fired Prosecutors

Tuesday, April 10th 2007, 12:42 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democrats subpoenaed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for more documents Tuesday, escalating their fight with the Bush administration over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

The subpoena, issued a week before Gonzales is to testify under oath before Congress about the dismissals, seeks hundreds of documents either withheld or heavily blacked out by his department. The subpoena sets a Monday deadline for Gonzales to produce the documents.

``We have been patient in allowing the department to work through its concerns regarding the sensitive nature of some of these materials,'' House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., wrote Gonzales in a letter accompanying the subpoena. ``Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs.''

He characterized the subpoena as a last resort after weeks of negotiations with Justice over documents and e-mails the committee wants in its pursuit of whether any of the firings were improper.

Responding, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse stopped short of saying the department would fight the subpoena. But he said legal concerns about violating privacy rights of people mentioned in the documents have kept the Justice Department from releasing them.

``Much of the information that the Congress seeks pertains to individuals other than the U.S. attorneys who resigned,'' Roehrkasse said. ``Because there are individuals' privacy interests implicated by publicly releasing this information, it is unfortunate that Congress would choose this option.''

He added: ``In light of these concerns, we will continue to work closely with congressional staff and we still hope and expect that we will be able to reach an accommodation with the Congress.''

Roehrkasse also said that many of the documents that lawmakers now seek ``have already been available to them for review'' but declined to say how or where.

Conyers' counterpart, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also asked Gonzales in a letter for documents on the firings that have been retained by the Justice Department. Such letters are sometimes preludes to a subpoena, which Leahy's committee is expected to authorize this week.

Leahy's committee also asked Gonzales for documents on a prosecution in Wisconsin that was overturned by a federal appeals court for lack of evidence. The defendant, state worker Georgia Thompson, had been accused of bid-rigging by favoring a company with ties to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

Leahy and five other Democratic senators said they were ``concerned whether or not politics may have played a role'' in the case against Thompson.

Together, the developments made clear that Democrats would make life for Gonzales and the Bush administration no easier in the week leading up to his long-awaited testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17.

Several lawmakers from both parties have said Gonzales' conflicting accounts of the firings, along with concerns about how the Justice Department is fighting the war on terrorism, has undermined their confidence in Gonzales. Democrats and some Republicans, such as Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire and possible GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, have called for Gonzales' resignation.

Bush, meanwhile, has stood by Gonzales, his longtime friend from Texas.

``I think the Justice Department has been working very hard to be fully responsive to the request, as the president asked them to do,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Tuesday.

Officials said the House request included the full text of all documents that had been partially or completely blacked out in the Justice Department's initial release of more than 3,000 pages last month, including some U.S. attorney evaluations.

Justice officials also said the request also included an unredacted list ranking the performance and standing of each of the 93 U.S. attorneys. Government officials have previously confirmed that Chicago-based prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the Justice Department's premier U.S. attorneys, was ranked as ``not distinguished.'' In addition, the documents being sought include any correspondence with journalists about the firing.

Democrats who control Congress say statements by Gonzales and his lieutenants, three of whom have resigned in the aftermath of the dismissals, have raised questions over whether the ousters were politically motivated.

The Justice Department denies that. Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told Leahy's committee last month that the firings were a ``benign rather than sinister story.''

Democrats aren't buying it.

Conyers' subpoena was the first issued by Congress over the firings. But his committee and Leahy's also have authorized the two chairmen to issue, at their discretion, subpoenas for several of Gonzales' top aides, White House political adviser Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and some of their aides.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected this week to authorize a subpoena for the same documents the House panel sought Tuesday.

Along with the subpoenas, Conyers released letters of negotiation between his committee and the Justice Department dating to March 8, when the panel's Democrats requested follow-up interviews with Gonzales' top aides and any documents between the agency and the White House about the firings.

The Justice Department responded by releasing more than 3,000 documents, including internal communications between agency officials, White House aides and some of the fired prosecutors. But substantial portions of the documents released were blacked out.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling wrote that the agency blocked information that raised privacy concerns, including the names of prosecutors who were considered for removal but ultimately retained, as well as candidates for judicial appointments.

``We are seeking to preserve the privacy and professional viability of those who are continuing to serve,'' Hertling wrote.

Meanwhile, Gonzales on Tuesday named Kevin J. O'Connor, U.S. attorney for Connecticut, his new chief of staff to replace Sampson, who had orchestrated the firings for the department and resigned last month. O'Connor has served since January 2007, in Washington as an associate deputy attorney general, the department said.