WASHINGTON—New details emerging from Justice Department interviews and e-mails suggest that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and perhaps President Bush were more active than they've acknowledged in the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, lawmakers said Monday.
Gonzales will be under pressure to explain those contradictions when he testifies Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in the firings. The hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, but lawmakers delayed it after a shooting spree Monday at Virginia Tech left at least 33 people dead, including the gunman.
The attorney general also faced more pressure after a group of conservatives that includes former Reagan administration Justice Department official Bruce Fein sent a letter Monday to Bush and Gonzales calling for the attorney general's resignation "for the good of the country."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, told congressional investigators on Sunday that Gonzales remembered talking to Bush last October about concerns with then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico.
Iglesias was forced out last December. While the White House has said Bush passed along complaints to Gonzales last October about voter fraud in three states, including New Mexico, the White House cast it as a broad conversation, not a discussion about an individual.
Gonzales has maintained that he doesn't recall the conversation with Bush—a position contradicted by Sampson's statement to congressional staff.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday she knew of no conversation between the president and Gonzales about Iglesias. "The president has a vague recollection" of passing on to the attorney general "complaints he'd been hearing about prosecution of voter fraud cases, including in New Mexico," she said.
Congressional investigators also are focusing on e-mails and interviews that contradict Gonzales' statement in a March 26 interview with NBC that he wasn't involved in deliberations over whether particular U.S. attorneys should be asked to resign.
Schumer said Associate Attorney General William Mercer, who also spoke in recent days with congressional staffers, suggested that Gonzales was involved in a June 5, 2006, briefing about the future of then-U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego. Lam was fired in December.
That account could bolster an e-mail that was included in the Justice Department's release of roughly 6,000 pages, and first reported by ABC News, in which Sampson wrote to Mercer about Gonzales' state of mind and the need to insulate the Justice Department from political criticism over immigration enforcement.
The e-mail suggested that Gonzales supported in concept a plan to remove Lam if she didn't go along with changes in immigration enforcement in her district.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Monday that the June 5 meeting "was held to discuss improving immigration enforcement in the southern district of California," following complaints from Congress. As for the e-mail, Roehrkasse said, "Clearly the attorney general will be testifying to this issue in the coming days."
As for Sampson's recollection of what Gonzales remembered about his conversation with the president, Roehrkasse said he would "refer to what the attorney general has said in the past."
Schumer said Sampson also told investigators that former Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was forced out for performance-related reasons, but Sampson couldn't recall what the reasons were. That contradicts testimony in February from Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who said he knew of no cause for Cummins' removal other than that he was making room for a new U.S. attorney. That replacement, Tim Griffin, is a former aide to Bush's political adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove.
Sampson, through his lawyer, didn't return calls for comment. A Senate Judiciary senior aide familiar with Sampson's closed-door testimony over the weekend confirmed Schumer's account. The aide asked not to be identified because the testimony hasn't been made public.
In another development, the House Judiciary Committee on Monday asked that eight new Justice Department officials come forward for interviews. That includes the current U.S. attorneys in three states where the White House forwarded complaints about voter fraud to Gonzales—in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. It also includes the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, a young, former Gonzales aide handpicked to replace her predecessor. Her management team stepped aside recently in apparent protest of her job performance.