Congress to Question Justice Department Officials

In the wake of contentious Congressional hearings this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee has announced its intention to question several Justice Department officials about the mass firings that claimed the jobs of eight U.S. attorneys in a December purge. The committee has been considering using its subpoena power in order to force officials to testify, although it appeared on Thursday that they were backing off that approach and leaning toward securing testimonies on a voluntary basis.

The White House, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the Department of Justice have been the recipients of widespread criticism over their handling of the firings, which many fear were politically motivated. Even some of the Administration’s closest Republican allies in Congress have questioned the legitimacy of the firings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, has been one of Gonzales’ harshest critics, and he sharply rebuked Gonzales and the Justice Department for their actions and their dubious explanations after the fact. According to the Washington Post, Specter told the committee during its hearing, “One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later.” Two other Republican senators who have been staunch supporters of the DOJ, Jon Kyl and Jeff Sessions, also raised objections to the way the DOJ was handling the controversy.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “Now that it’s clear that there was a concerted effort to purge an impressive crop of U.S. attorneys, the next step is to identify and question those responsible for hatching this scheme to use U.S. attorneys as pawns in a political chess game.” Among the officials he would like to question are Kyle Sampson, chief of staff for Gonzales; Michael Elston, chief of staff for Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty; Monica Goodling, Gonzales’ senior counsel and White House liaison; and Mike Battle, who personally handled many of the firings, but abruptly resigned just before the Congressional hearings began.

The House and Senate Ethics Committees may become involved as well. Already, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico faces an Ethics Committee probe relating to accusations that he pressured a U.S. attorney to produce indictments of Democratic officials in time for the November elections and then lied about it. (That attorney, David Iglesias, was one of the eight attorneys fired in December.)

Other lawmakers under pressure include Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who is also accused of meddling in the state’s Democratic corruption case, and Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, who is accused of pressuring U.S. attorney John McKay to investigate voter fraud in the state’s disputed 2004 gubernatorial election. McKay did not comply and was also among the group of attorneys fired.

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