WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales drew fire at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday where lawmakers challenged his truthfulness and ability to lead his battered Justice Department.
“The attorney general’s lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people,” said Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. He described the department as “shrouded in scandal,” and told Gonzales: “I don’t trust you.”
“It looks to me ... as if the department is dysfunctional,” added Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee’s ranking Republican and a leading critic of Gonzales, particularly for his firing of nine federal prosecutors.
“What keeps you in the job, Mr. Attorney General?” asked Sen. Herbert Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat.
“I have decided to stay and fix the problems,” replied Gonzales, whose department has been wracked by allegations that politics played a role in hiring practices and the administration of justice.
Gonzales, with the support of President George W. Bush, has rejected calls to resign in recent months from Democrats as well as some fellow Republicans in Congress, many of whom again questioned Gonzales’ credibility at Tuesday’s hearing.
“We have every reason to believe that the Attorney General testified truthfully,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
Yet Democrats have stepped up pressure on the attorney general and the administration to answer questions as they head toward a possible court fight over Bush’s claim of executive privilege in denying lawmakers access to documents and witnesses.
Gonzales refused to answer when asked if the White House was on solid legal ground in contending Congress cannot force the Justice Department to pursue a possible congressional contempt citation against the administration or its current or former aides.
‘I’M NOT GOING TO ANSWER THAT QUESTION’
“Your question relates to an ongoing controversy which I am recused from,” Gonzales told Leahy. “I can’t — I’m not going to answer that question.”
Since shortly after taking control of Congress in January, Democrats have been investigating Gonzales’ firing last year of nine of the 93 U.S. attorneys. Critics charge partisan politics were behind the dismissals. The White House denies it.
Specter urged the administration to consider appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the firings.
Gonzales was asked about testimony in May by a former aide, Monica Goodling. She said that although Gonzales had earlier testified he had not discussed the probe with colleagues, he had raised the topic with her shortly before she left the Justice Department.
“Which one of you is telling the truth?” Leahy asked.
“I did have that conversation with her in the context of trying to console and reassure an emotionally distraught woman,” Gonzales said. “I tried to reassure her (that) as far as I knew no one had done anything intentionally wrong.”
“My conversation with her was not to shape her testimony,” he told dubious lawmakers.
Congress is also examining Gonzales’ role in Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program, which critics have denounced as illegal.
Lawmakers noted that although Gonzales testified earlier this year “there has not been any serious disagreement” about the surveillance program, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey told Congress in May that a number of top Justice Department officials threatened to quit over the issue.
The dispute was heated enough that Gonzales, then White House counsel, and Andrew Card, then Bush’s chief of staff, went to a hospital in 2004 to discuss it with a critically ill John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general but had handed over his powers to his deputy.
“The disagreement that occurred ... was about other intelligence activities,” Gonzales insisted under questioning. “It was not about the terrorist surveillance program.”
“Mr. Attorney General, do you expect us to believe that?” Specter fired back.