What Happened in the U.S. Attorneys Firing Controversy?

— -- Criticism of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Justice Department has heated up after the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Documents and e-mails released by the Justice Department show the plan to fire select U.S. attorneys started as early as January 2005, at the beginning of President Bush's second term. At that time, the president had nominated Gonzales to serve as attorney general during the second term.

The following timeline highlights some of the key events in the matter.

Jan. 6, 2005: Hearings start on Capitol Hill in the confirmation process for Gonzales' attorney general nomination.

That same day, a staff member in the White House counsel's office relays a message from political adviser Karl Rove to another staff member.

Rove reportedly asked "how we planned to proceed regarding U.S. attorneys, whether we were going to allow all to stay, request resignations from all and accept only some of them or selectively replace them, etc. I told him you would be on the hill all day for the Judge's [Gonzales] hearing and he said the matter was not urgent."

The White House counsel's office forwards the message to Gonzales' top aide at the Justice Department, D. Kyle Sampson.

Later that year, the White House and Justice Department begin gathering information on activities of U.S. attorneys across the country, looking at prosecution rates, comparing administration policy to that of local offices, etc.

Jan. 9, 2006: Gonzales aide Kyle Sampson sends an e-mail to White House counsel Harriet Miers and her assistant, saying, "Harriet, you have asked whether President Bush should remove and replace U.S. attorneys whose four-year terms have expired. I recommend that the Department of Justice and the office of the counsel to the president work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. attorneys."

Sampson includes a preliminary list of U.S. attorneys he recommends the administration fire.

February-October 2006: The Justice Department gathers more information on U.S. attorneys, focusing on those starting to appear on internal lists of those considered for removal.

Oct. 5, 2006: The Justice Department sends all U.S. attorneys guidance on the protocol for submitting a resignation, if they elect to do so.

Oct. 17, 2006: Gonzales' chief of staff Kyle Sampson compares notes with others in the department on attorneys to fire after consultation with White House counsel.

Nov. 7, 2006: A DOJ staff member sends a plan developed by Sampson to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the second-highest ranking official at the department behind Gonzales.

Nov. 15 2006: In an e-mail with the subject line "USA replacement plan," Sampson advises White House counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty on the firing plan. "I have consulted with DAG [Deputy Attorney General McNulty], but not informed others who would need to be brought into the loop… nor have I informed anyone in Karl's [Rove] shop, another pre-execution necessity I would recommend."

Sampson cautions the group "that to execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page and steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result°."

Sampson then asks for approval from the White House counsel's office, writing, "We'll stand by for the green light from you."

Nov. 27, 2006: Gonzales meets with Kyle Sampson and other Justice Department officials to discuss the plan to fire a small number of U.S. attorneys. According to officials at the department, the group discussed the plan, but specific names of attorneys considered for dismissal did not come up.

Dec. 5, 2006: McNulty responds to Sampson on the plan being a "go," expressing concern about one of the firings. "I'll admit not having looked at his district's performance," McNulty wrote.

Sampson also implicates the White House in the plans in another e-mail to a DOJ staff member. "Administration has determined to ask some underperforming USAs [U.S. attorneys] to move on (you'll remember I beat back a much broader -- like across the board -- plan that WHCO [White House counsel's office] was pushing after 2004)," Sampson wrote.

Dec. 7, 2006: The head of the executive office for U.S. attorneys calls seven U.S. attorneys, informing them the Justice Department plans to replace them. (One had already been contacted about stepping down.)

After the Justice Department fires the attorneys, the attorneys start to e-mail officials at the Department of Justice about other job openings and to ask if the department will provide references. They begin to outline plans for leaving office and announcing their resignations.

One of the fired attorneys e-mails a Justice Department official, noting her termination was "not unexpected" because she had been told "it was a likely consequence of the recent election," a reference to Bush's re-election in November 2004.

Senators and representatives from the states affected by the firings begin to ask the Justice Department to explain the reasoning behind the move.

Jan. 18, 2007: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee about a separate matter, but is asked about the attorney firings. He responds, "I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons or if it would, in any way, jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it."

Feb. 1, 2007: One of the fired attorneys reportedly notifies Justice Department that he's been asked to testify about the circumstances of his firing before Congress. Sampson e-mails other department officials, saying he doesn't think the attorney should appear before Congress. Sampson asked, "How would he answer: Did you resign voluntarily? Were you told why you were being asked to resign? Who told you? When did they tell you? What did they say? Did you ever talk to Tim Griffin [the attorney's replacement] about becoming U.S. Attorney? Did Griffin ever talk about being AG [Attorney General] appointed and avoiding Senate confirmation? Were you asked to resign because you were underperforming? If not, then why?"

Feb. 6, 2007: Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the second-highest ranking official at the Justice Department, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the firing of the attorneys, answering questions about allegations of political motivation for the dismissals. "Mr. Chairman [Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.], as you know, and when I hear you talk about the politicizing of the Department of Justice, it's like a knife in my heart," McNulty says.

Feb. 7, 2007: Gonzales, traveling in South America, is reportedly not happy with the reaction to McNulty's testimony.

A member of the DOJ's public affairs office e-mails Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' top aide, saying, "The Attorney General is extremely upset with stories on the U.S. attys this morning. He also thought some of the DAG's [Deputy Attorney General McNulty] statements were inaccurate."

March 4, 2007: The Justice Department prepares for more of its officials to answer questions about the firings on Capitol Hill.

The department's public affairs director sends talking points for an upcoming hearing for review. Topics include the fact that the attorneys serve "at the pleasure of the president," though the note points to faults in the department's execution of the firing plan.

Later that day, one of the fired attorneys sends Paul McNulty an e-mail asking him to reconsider the reasoning behind her dismissal, stating, "Politics may not be a pleasant reason but the truth is compelling."

March 5, 2007: The White House counsel's office asks for a meeting with DOJ officials "to go over the administration's position on all aspects of the U.S. atty issue, including what we are going to say about the proposed legislation and why the U.S. attys were asked to resign… There's a hearing tomorrow… so we have to get this group together with some folks here [the White House] asap."

March 6, 2007: Congressional hearings investigating the U.S. attorney firings take place, with the Senate hearing from the fired U.S. attorneys and the House Judiciary Committee hearing from Assistant Attorney General William Moschella.

Moschella said of the firings, "To be clear, it was for reasons related to policy, priorities and management -- what has been referred to broadly as 'performance-related reasons' -- that these United States attorneys were asked to resign."

"I want to emphasize that the department, out of respect for the United States attorneys at issue, would have preferred not to talk about those reasons, but disclosures in the press and requests for information from Congress altered those best-laid plans. In hindsight, perhaps this situation could have been handled better."

Moschella also comments on the current atmosphere of speculation over the department's motives for the firings, but maintains that the DOJ stood by the decisions.

March 12, 2007: D. Kyle Sampson resigns his post as Gonzales' chief of staff amid the controversy.

March 13, 2007: The Justice Department releases internal e-mails and documents in the hopes of clarifying the chain of events leading to the firings.

Attorney General Gonzales holds a press conference to answer questions about the growing controversy, saying, "I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice. I acknowledge that mistakes were made here." Gonzales continued, "I've overcome a lot of obstacles in my life to become Attorney General. I am here not because I give up. I am here because I've learned from my mistakes, because I accept responsibility, and because I am committed to doing my job. And that is what I intend to do here on behalf of the American people."

March 14, 2007: President Bush affirms his support for Gonzales during a press conference in Merida, Mexico. "I do have confidence in Attorney General Al Gonzales," Bush said. "I talked to him this morning, and we talked about his need to go up to Capitol Hill and make it very clear to members in both political parties why the Justice Department made the decisions it made, making very clear about the facts. And he's right, mistakes were made. And I'm, frankly, not happy about it, because there is a lot of confusion over what really has been a customary practice by the presidents. U.S. attorneys and others serve at the pleasure of the president. Past administrations have removed U.S. attorneys; they're right to do so."

March 15, 2007: The Senate Judiciary Committee steps up its investigation into the controversy, authorizing Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to issue subpoenas for Justice Department officials involved in the matter, compelling them to testify before the group.

March 19, 2007: The DOJ releases another group of internal documents, more than 3,000 pages of e-mails and internal documents.

March 20, 2007: White House counsel Fred Fielding meets with members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees in an attempt to hash out an agreement over testimony and documents from the White House concerning its involvement in the plan to fire the attorneys. Fielding offers up key White House staff members for interviews with the committee, as long as the conversations are not recorded and the witnesses are not sworn in, but Congress wants to hear from the witnesses under oath and in public.

March 21, 2007: The House Judiciary Committee votes to authorize Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., to issue subpoenas for White House officials involved in the firings.

March 22, 2007: The Senate Judiciary Committee votes to authorize its chairman to issue subpoenas to White House officials.

March 23, 2007: The Justice Department releases a third group of e-mails and documents from the account of an employee who was on vacation during the first search.

March 26, 2007: Attorneys for counselor to Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling send a letter to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee [Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.], notifying the committee that Goodling will invoke her Fifth Amendment right to not testify before the group.

March 28, 2007: The Justice Department releases another set of more than 200 e-mails and documents related to the controversy.

March 29, 2007: Former Gonzales chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, answering questions about his recollection of the chain of events leading to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.

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