Unanswered Questions Persist in Controversy

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."

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