Ex-Justice official testifies she `crossed a line' in hiring

Goodling says she considered political leanings of would-be prosecutors

May 24, 2007|By Andrew Zajac | Andrew Zajac,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Former Justice Department official Monica Goodling acknowledged yesterday that she "crossed a line" and took political factors into consideration when screening applicants for entry-level civil service legal jobs, but she denied playing a role in singling out U.S. attorneys for dismissal.

Testifying under a grant of immunity, Goodling told the House Judiciary Committee that she considered political leanings when interviewing would-be federal prosecutors, who are supposed to be hired without regard for political outlook.

"I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions," Goodling said under questioning by Rep. Robert C. Scott, a Virginia Democrat. Goodling acknowledged that she "crossed the lines" of civil service law, but said: "I don't believe I intended to commit a crime." Goodling's actions are under internal Justice Department investigation.

Like other top Justice Department officials who testified previously, Goodling offered only a murky picture of how eight U.S. attorneys were marked for dismissal last year.

She said D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, compiled the list but "never told me exactly who recommended which name" for firing.

Sampson has denied selecting the prosecutors on the termination list and said he did not know who did.

The firings and the Justice Department's shifting explanations of how and why they occurred have triggered a furor that has imperiled Gonzales' tenure and brought upheaval to the executive suites in the department.

Goodling and Sampson have quit, and last week Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty announced his intention to resign later this year.

Lawmakers from both parties have urged Gonzales to step down, but President Bush has repeatedly expressed his support for the attorney general.

Goodling, 33, was counselor to Gonzales and the Justice Department's liaison to the White House until shortly before she resigned April 6.

Goodling lashed out at McNulty in her opening statement yesterday, saying that he had falsely accused her of failing to prepare him for a Feb. 6 congressional appearance, and challenging the accuracy of his testimony. "I do not agree with the deputy's allegation that I failed to brief him adequately," Goodling said. "Nor do I agree with the substance of his testimony in all respects."

Goodling said McNulty knew more than he told Congress about White House involvement in the plans to fire prosecutors.

McNulty told Congress only that the White House personnel office "was consulted." But, Goodling said, McNulty knew that Sampson "had been working with several offices in the White House for some period of time."

She said that contrary to his congressional testimony, McNulty knew for months about plans to install Tim Griffin, a protege of top White House political adviser Karl Rove, as a U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

In a statement, McNulty disputed Goodling's account. "I testified truthfully at the Feb. 6, 2007, hearing based on what I knew at that time. Ms. Goodling's characterization of my testimony is wrong and not supported by the extensive record of documents and testimony already provided to Congress," he said.

Goodling described herself as "part of the core" group of officials involved in the dismissals, but played down her interaction with the White House on the subject. "I was not the primary White House contact for purposes of the development or approval of the U.S. attorney replacement plan," she said.

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee defended Goodling against Democrats prodding her for information about how the dismissal list was compiled.

GOP lawmakers contended that further investigation is pointless because U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. But Democrats noted that a president may not fire a U.S. attorney in order to interfere with an investigation for partisan gain and that several of the fired prosecutors were engaged in politically sensitive investigations at the time of their dismissal.

Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, said Goodling's appearance was "beneficial," but noted that "there remain basic unanswered questions about how and why the termination list was created, how it was compiled, how it was revised and how it was finalized."

Some Democrats questioned whether Gonzales might have been trying to shape Goodling's recollections about the firings when he met with her at her request shortly before she left the department.

Goodling said she was "uncomfortable" about the discussion but did not think Gonzales was trying to influence her recollections.

In a statement, the Justice Department said the Gonzales meeting was an act of kindness and was not intended to influence her recollections.

Andrew Zajac writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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