WASHINGTON—The Senate moved Thursday to schedule a no-confidence vote on embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as new details surfaced suggesting that at least 30 federal prosecutors were targeted for firing, nearly one-third of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys.
The impending censure vote is aimed at pressuring Gonzales to resign and forcing the Bush administration to further explain the motives behind its strategy to replace U.S. attorneys.
The names, nearly four times the number the Justice Department has acknowledged, give congressional investigators new leads in their inquiry into whether politics improperly influenced the firings of at least eight U.S. attorneys.
McClatchy Newspapers has learned that the top prosecutors in Macon, Ga., and Roanoke, Va., landed on a proposed firing list weeks after the White House and Justice Department traded notes about the potential for voter-fraud cases in central Georgia and Appalachia. They were added to a list just days before last November's midterm election, but ultimately not fired.
Thursday's developments follow the dramatic testimony by the Justice Department's former No. 2 official in which he described a hospital visit in 2004 by then-White House Counsel Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to persuade the ailing former Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve a secret spying program that the department said was illegal.
That testimony sent reverberations across official Washington.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called the account the "last straw" in the decision to proceed with the no-confidence vote on Gonzales next week. Democratic sponsors of the vote said they expect several Republicans to join with them. As of Thursday, five Republican senators have called for Gonzales' resignation.
Such a vote would be nonbinding, but proponents say it could force Gonzales to resign. The Justice Department issued a statement saying that the attorney general stood by his previous statements to Congress denying that there was any internal dissent to the eavesdropping program, despite Wednesday's testimony by James Comey, Ashcroft's former second in command.
The disclosure of the extensive firing list brings to nine the number of battleground election states where the Bush administration set out to replace some of the nation's top prosecutors. In at least seven states, it now appears, U.S. attorneys were fired or considered for firing as Republicans in those states urged investigations or prosecutions of alleged Democratic voter fraud.
Maxwell Wood, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, and John L. Brownlee, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, remain in office. But their brief, last-minute appearances on a Nov. 1, 2006, target list have caught the interest of congressional investigators looking into whether politics improperly prompted the firings of the U.S. attorneys.
Brownlee said in a prepared statement that he first learned two months ago that he had been included on a 2006 list prepared by Michael Elston, chief of staff to the deputy attorney general. He said he reported what Elston had done to department officials. He declined to be interviewed "due to the department's investigation of these matters."
Wood declined comment.
The longer list of 26 names considered for firing was reported Thursday by The Washington Post. A government official familiar with the documents told McClatchy Newspapers that an additional four names were considered for removal.
Some targets who ultimately weren't fired were Christopher J. Christie in New Jersey, whose office subpoenaed Democratic Senator Robert Menendez just before the November 2006 elections; Mary Beth Buchanan in Pittsburgh, Pa., who had worked for the Justice Department in Washington; and Dunn Lampton in Mississippi, who pursued a high-profile prosecution of a powerful Democratic donor and several Democratic judges on bribery changes.
One of the targeted prosecutors, Tallahassee's U.S. attorney, Greg Miller, said he didn't know why he would have appeared on the list in February 2005, and then be off it by November 2006.
Miller said he was never pressured by Washington to prosecute voter fraud cases.
Ion Sancho, the Leon County, Fla., election supervisor, said in an interview Thursday that Miller's staff called his office soon after the November 2006 elections requesting a database of voter rolls.
"They told us, `We want to look for voter fraud,'" he said. "They didn't give me any specific reason."
Congressional investigators earlier had learned from Justice Department documents and closed-door interviews that Matt Friedrich, a counselor to Gonzales, last October was asked to pursue a complaint that the White House received that prosecutors weren't aggressively enough pursuing voter fraud complaints in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Mexico.
Notes taken by Friedrich to be reported back to the White House indicated that the Justice Department's public integrity section also reported that there were voter fraud complaints in Appalachia and the middle district of Georgia.