Gonzales Under Serious Scrutiny in Special Counsel’s Probe of U.S. Attorney Firings
By Jason Leopold, NEWS JUNKIE POST
A special prosecutor appointed to investigate the firings of nine federal prosecutors in 2006 has built a strong case against Alberto Gonzales that may result in obstruction of justice charges against the former Attorney General related to the role he played in the U.S. Attorney firings, according to attorneys directly involved in the probe whose clients have met with the special counsel.
According to legal sources, over the past several weeks Gonzales’s former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has provided damaging information to Special Prosecutor Nora Dannehy, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Connecticut, about Gonzales. Sampson is said to have told the special prosecutor that Gonzales was far more engaged in the attorney firings than he had previously disclosed to Dannehy, in Congressional testimony and in interviews with Justice Department watchdogs.
Sampson, these sources said, is also facing obstruction of justice charges and the sources familiar with his interviews with Dannehy said he had provided detailed information about Gonzales’s role in the firings in hopes of staving off the possibility of criminal charges he may face for his role in the dismissals. The legal standard for an obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and perjury charges is specific intent.
With that in mind, the legal sources added that although Dannehy has collected voluminous evidence over the past four months that would appear to suggest Gonzales and other Bush administration officials may have committed crimes related to the attorney firings–including perjury and conspiracy–it’s also possible that criminal charges won’t be filed if she believes she cannot prove intent.
However, Sampson is said to have provided Dannehy with an important piece of evidence that bolstered her case against Gonzales: the former Attorney General was aware of and helped create a list of federal prosecutors to fire.
In testimony before Congress in April 2007, Gonzales said he played no role in creating such a list and was unaware that anyone in his office had put such a list together.
“I have searched my memory,” Gonzales said, in response to a question by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) about one meeting Gonzales attended in November 2006 when he discussed the firings. “I have no recollection of the meeting…. I don’t remember the contents of this meeting.”
But Sampson is said to have told Dannehy that Gonzales met regularly with White House officials in the Office of Political Affairs, headed by George W. Bush’s former senior adviser Karl Rove, about the identities of the federal prosecutors that should be placed on the list and subsequently fired.
Several legal sources said Sampson described Gonzales as “very hands on” with regard to the U.S. Attorney firings. However, one snag that Dannehy has apparently hit is proving that any of the prosecutor firings were specifically intended to thwart public corruption cases, according to legal sources familiar with her probe. Carol Lam, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California was in the midst of a corruption investigation involving associates of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Republican congressman from San Diego, when she was fired.
Gonzales’s attorney, George Terwilliger, did not return calls for comment Wednesday afternoon. Neither Sampson nor his attorney returned numerous calls for comment over the past week. Gonzales resigned as Attorney General in the summer of 2007.
Additionally, Dannehy is said to have closed in on former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and apparently has information that shows he allegedly perjured himself during testimony before Congress. McNulty testified before Congress in February 2007 that the prosecutor firings were “performance related,” an allegation he knew to be untrue. Documents released by the Justice Department showed that Gonzales and McNulty participated in an hour-long meeting with Sampson and three other officials on Nov. 27, 2006 – about two weeks before the U.S. Attorneys were fired – to review the plan to fire them.
However, legal sources knowledgeable about Dannehy’s probe said McNulty is unlikely to face any criminal charges about his role in the U.S. attorney firings.
Gonzales, meanwhile, has continued to downplay the seriousness of the prosecutor firings.
In an interview in February with CNN, Gonzales characterized the scandal and the public’s focus on it as “little negatives” and claimed, falsely, that a Justice Department watchdog report concluded that a majority of the dismissals were for “performance related reasons.”
Gonzales told CNN that the report prepared by Inspector General Glenn Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, “clearly found that there were performance related reasons for the removal of most of these U.S. attorneys and with respect to the remainder, they didn’t have enough information to draw definite conclusions.”
In a reent interview, David Iglesias, the former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico whose firing was deemed by the inspector general to be the most partisan of the nine, said, Gonzales “needs to shoot straight with the American people.”
“Alberto Gonzales is showing the same remarkable disengagement he was criticized for by the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report,” Iglesias told me. “This time, he is disengaged from the official findings of fact. Far from being “little negatives”, despite the good work that was done by the Justice Department, the Inspector General’s Report officially found illegal political hirings of attorneys and immigration judges, an out of control Civil Rights section, and improper firings of U.S. Attorneys, myself included.
“The report, conducted by non-partisan, career investigators established our firings were “fundamentally flawed” and rejected “performance-related” reasons for seven out of nine U.S. Attorneys. In my case, the report examined and rejected every reason give for my firing as “disingenuous after the fact rationalizations.” The Justice Department was a train wreck under the failed leadership of Gonzales.”
Fine and Jarrett’s joint report concluded that Iglesias’s firing was the most “controversial” of the nine and that his dismissal was “engineered” by former New Mexico GOP lawmakers Sen. Pete Domenici, Rep. Heather Wilson and former White House political adviser Karl Rove over complaints about Iglesias’s refusal to secure indictments in voter fraud cases and in a public corruption case.
The watchdogs’ report said Bush and Rove “spoke with Attorney General Gonzales in October 2006 about their concerns over voter fraud in three cities, one of which was Albuquerque, New Mexico,” and concerns Domenici had about Iglesias’s job performance.
“There is conflicting evidence about exactly what was communicated to Gonzales, and what the Department’s response was to these concerns,” according to the report. “Gonzales testified that he recalled mentioning his conversation with Rove to [his former Chief of Staff Kyle] Sampson and asking him to look into the matter. Sampson told congressional investigators that he recalled that after the removals became public, Gonzales told him that he recalled the President telling him in October  that Domenici had concerns about Iglesias.”
People who used to work with Iglesias n the U.S. Attorneys office in New Mexico have met with Dannehy, according to people knowledgeable about the probe. But, “out of deference to the on-going probe,” Iglesias declined to say whether he has met with Dannehy.
Fine and Jarrett did not have subpoena power and were unable to interview Bush administration officials in order to determine whether crimes were committed. Dannehy, however, has meticulously pieced together the rest of the narrative since former Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed her special prosecutor last October.
Dannehy has briefed Attorney General Eric Holder about the status of her investigation, according to Justice Department sources, but it’s still unclear when she expects to complete her probe.
Alberto Gonzales’ resignation speech from 9/17/07