Late last year the Justice Department quietly asked for the resignations of eight of its 93 U.S. attorneys. Perfectly legal.
But the thundering criticism that followed the move has dogged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Bush administration ever since.
Gonzales will head to Capitol Hill next week to answer questions about the events leading up to the firings -- and the fallout -- in what many see as a make it or break it shot at saving his job.
The fired attorneys, seven who were asked to resign in December and one who had been asked to step down several months prior, said they were initially not given any reasons behind the Justice Department's decision.
The step-by-step plan for the firings, laid out by the Justice Department, called for the seven attorneys to be told, "The Administration is grateful for your service as a U.S. attorney, but has determined to give someone else the opportunity to serve as U.S. attorney in your district for the final two years of the administration."
The decision did not immediately attract controversy, but as local reporters began to write stories examining the attorneys' tenure serving their respective districts, some questions began to rise to the surface. Members of Congress also began to ask the Justice Department why the attorneys were fired. Some of the attorneys' offices had handled politically sensitive cases investigating Republican officials, such as Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, son of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving time in prison for a corruption conviction.
The question kept coming up: Were they fired for political reasons? Perhaps because they vigorously brought criminal cases against Republicans?
'I Just Would Not Do It'
While testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales answered preliminary questions about the firings, stating, "I think I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it."
Gonzales explained the process by saying, "What we do is make an evaluation about the performance of individuals, and I have a responsibility to the people in your district that we have the best possible people in these positions."
"And that's the reason why changes sometimes have to be made, although there are a number of reasons why changes get made and why people leave on their own," Gonzales continued.
The next month, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the second in command at the Justice Department, responded to accusations of playing dirty with politics and the law in another Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, this time from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer charged that the department "increasingly based hiring on political affiliation, ignored the recommendations of career attorneys, focused on the promotion of political agendas and failed to retain legions of talented career attorneys."
McNulty responded to the criticism, saying, "When I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart. The AG [attorney general] and I love the department, and it's an honor to serve and we love its mission. And your perspective is completely contrary to my daily experience and I would love the opportunity, not just today but in the weeks and months ahead, to dispel you of the opinion that you hold."
The tangled web of words was just beginning.
'I Had a Sick Feeling in the Pit of My Stomach'
After the statements made by the two top officials at the Justice Department, details about some of those politically sensitive cases started to tumble out. Six of the fired attorneys were called to testify before a House Judiciary Subcommittee about the firings.
David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for the district of New Mexico, detailed a phone call from Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) about corruption allegations surrounding local Democrats.
"Sen. Domenici wanted to talk to me about these corruption matters, corruption cases. These were widely reported in the local media. And he wanted to know if they'd [charges] be filed before [the] November [election]. And I gave an answer to the effect I didn't think so. And he said, 'Well, I'm very sorry to hear that,' and the line went dead. The telephone line went dead," Iglesias testified.
"So I thought to myself, did he just hang up on me?" Iglesias continued, "He didn't call back. I didn't call back, but I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that something very bad had just happened. And within six weeks, I got the phone call from [former Justice Department official] Mike Battle indicating that it was time for me to move on."
Both Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) have admitted to calling Iglesias but deny pressuring him about the cases.
'An Overblown Personnel Matter'
The Justice Department then stepped up its pushback. Gonzales made a rare move in writing an article that appeared in USA Today. Under the headline, "They lost my confidence," Gonzales said of the firings, "To be clear, it was for reasons related to policy, priorities and management -- what have been referred to broadly as 'performance-related' reasons -- that seven U.S. attorneys were asked to resign last December." Gonzales concluded by writing, "I hope that this episode ultimately will be recognized for what it is: an overblown personnel matter."
As the story continued to unfold and the Justice Department started to speak out on the matter, more questions surfaced about the lack of detail offered over the reasons for the firings, and officials were called out on conflicting answers.
The Justice Department and the White House offered the explanation that U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president and serve at his pleasure, meaning they could be asked to leave at any time, for any reason. But Democrats have said that's not the issue, charging the attorneys were fired for political reasons, possibly relating to some of the hot-button cases in their districts.
E-Mails and Documents
And then came the documents. Justice Department staff carted boxes of internal documents and e-mails over to Capitol Hill; after several groups of releases, the pages totaled more than 3000. Those e-mails and documents show the planning process and leading up to the firings, and indicate the White House played a key role in the process.
The attorney general held a press conference in which he compared himself to the CEO of a large corporation, noting, "As we can all imagine in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls of the Department of Justice, nor am I aware of all decisions."
Gonzales then explained his role in the firings. "What I know is that there began a process of evaluating strong performers, not-as-strong performers and weak performers."
Acknowledging he was aware his staff was evaluating the performance of U.S. attorneys, Gonzales recalled, "that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
And the White House started its pushback, too. Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, lashed out at critics in a speech at Troy University in Alabama, and pointed to President Clinton's move to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys at the beginning of his first term, and subsequently remove some of those appointees later in his administration.
"Now we're at a point where people want to play politics with it, and that's fine," Rove said. "I would simply ask that everybody who is playing politics with this be asked to comment about what they think about the removal of about 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous administration. And see if they have the same superheated political rhetoric then that they are having now."
"So this, to my mind is a lot of politics," Rove shot back. "And I understand that's what Congress has a right to play around with, and they are going to do it. And I just ask that the American people ask Congress to look fairly and carefully at what is being said and done."
A Justice Department e-mail shows Rove asked about plans to fire select U.S. attorneys as early as January 2005, before Gonzales was confirmed as attorney general.
Contradictions and Clarifications
Another group of e-mails released after those public statements seemed to contradict Gonzales' statement that he wasn't involved in the events leading up to the firings, showing he attended a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting with senior staff members, just weeks before the December firings.
Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, who had resigned amid the controversy, further discredited Gonzales when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 29.
"I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate," Sampson testified. "I don't think it's accurate. I think he's recently clarified it. But I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign. And I believe that he was present at the [planning] meeting on November 27."
"So he was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made at his news conference on March 13?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
"I believe yes, sir," Sampson replied. He also testified that he did not keep files on the attorneys, prompting more questions about what information the Justice Department ultimately used to make the decisions.
No Paper Trail?
Sampson's testimony, and the e-mails and documents released by the Justice Department, demonstrate a lack of a paper trail. The White House has provided little information about its role in the firings, and the White House counsel's office has told Congress it will not produce documentation or witnesses related to the matter, citing executive privilege.
Gonzales is set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, April 17. Members of Congress hope to get answers to their questions about the changing story put forth by the Justice Department, but the bigger question for some is this: Will Gonzales' testimony be enough for him to keep his job?
ABC News' Jack Date and Jason Ryan contributed to this report.