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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gonzales: "Mistakes" made in firings

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took responsibility Tuesday for "mistakes" related to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year but rejected calls for his resignation from Democrats who accuse him of misleading Congress.

"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said. He said he did not know details of the plan to fire the prosecutors, but defended the dismissals: "I stand by the decision, and I think it was a right decision."

The remarks came after the Justice Department released e-mails and other documents showing that, despite months of administration statements to the contrary, the White House more than two years ago initiated the process that led to dismissals and that the decisions were heavily influenced by assessments of political loyalty. President Bush and senior White House political adviser Karl Rove also separately passed along complaints to Gonzales that prosecutors were not aggressively pursuing voter-fraud cases, officials said.

One of those dismissed was John McKay of Seattle.

The revelations prompted another outcry on Capitol Hill and new demands from key Democrats for Gonzales' resignation.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "Either Attorney General Gonzales knew what his chief of staff was doing -- that's a pretty severe indictment -- or he didn't, which means he doesn't have the foggiest idea of what's going on in the Justice Department."

Even Republicans who have supported the ousters sharply criticized the attorney general.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said the dismissal of the U.S. attorney in Las Vegas was "completely mishandled by the United States attorney general."

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., warned that the Justice Department was "going to have to come up with some answers."

But Gonzales said he is "here not because I give up," and White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush has "all the confidence in the world" in Gonzales.

Democrats also renewed calls for testimony from Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel who first suggested in February 2005 that all 93 U.S. attorneys be removed and whose office received evolving lists of at least a dozen attorneys targeted for ouster. The White House signaled that it would resist the demands.

Presidents commonly begin their first term by replacing most, if not all, U.S. attorneys. Presidents Clinton in 1993 and Bush in 2001 replaced nearly all U.S. attorneys in the Justice Department's 93 districts nationwide. But it's rare for these attorneys to be dismissed later in a president's term except in cases of malfeasance. A Feb. 22 report by the bipartisan Congressional Research Service showed only five cases in 25 years in which U.S. attorneys were forced to resign. Three were for "questionable personal conduct," such as one who bit a topless dancer after losing a drug case.

Seven U.S. attorneys, including McKay, were fired Dec. 7, and another was let go months earlier, with little explanation from Justice Department officials. Several former prosecutors have since alleged intimidation, including improper calls from GOP lawmakers or their aides, and have alleged threats of retaliation by a Justice Department official.

In defending themselves Tuesday, Gonzales and the White House implicitly laid much of the blame for miscommunication with Congress on Kyle Sampson, who resigned Monday as Gonzales' chief of staff after acknowledging he had not told other Justice officials about his extensive communications with the White House about the dismissals.

Gonzales, likening himself to a chief executive who delegates responsibility, said he knew few details about Sampson's actions.

"I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said.

Gonzales said he accepted Sampson's resignation because, by withholding information from other Justice officials, he led them to provide "incomplete information" to Congress. Gonzales did not comment on his own testimony in January, when he assured senators he never would fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons.

Seattle Times staff and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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