WASHINGTON—A former senior aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told lawmakers Wednesday that Gonzales had sought to go over with her his recollections about the firings of U.S. attorneys after a congressional investigation was under way.
Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's former senior counsel and liaison to the White House, told the House Judiciary Committee that the one-on-one conversation in Gonzales' office in mid-March made her "uncomfortable" and that she thought it might be inappropriate for them to compare notes when both might be asked to testify.
Goodling answered "no" when Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., asked her directly, "Do you think the attorney general was trying to shape your recollection?" She said, "I just did not know if it was a conversation that we should be having."
Lawmakers said her disclosure was important nonetheless because it seemed to contradict Gonzales' testimony to Congress under oath that he couldn't answer some details about the firings because he'd had to avoid discussing certain details with his staff in order to avoid any perception that he was compromising congressional and two internal departmental investigations.
In a statement late Wednesday, the Justice Department said Gonzales "has never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness in this matter, including Ms. Goodling."
The meeting with his aide was only intended to "comfort her in a very difficult period of her life," Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman, said in the statement.
Roehrkasse also said that the conversation took place before the two internal investigations were launched. Congressional inquiries, however, were well underway.
Goodling's disclosure capped hours of questions that she was compelled to answer because of a court-approved order granting her immunity from prosecution for what she told Congress under oath.
She'd previously refused to testify, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against incriminating herself.
Goodling told lawmakers that she was largely out of the loop in the strategy to fire nine U.S. attorneys last year.
"I did not hold the keys to the kingdom, as some have suggested," she said, adding that she didn't know how deeply White House political adviser Karl Rove was involved in the strategy or who decided which U.S. attorneys should be replaced and why.
"I was not the primary White House contact for purposes of the development or approval of the U.S. attorney-replacement plan," she said.
Congressional investigators want to know whether the unusual replacement of the administration's own U.S. attorneys was connected to corruption probes or to Republicans' desires to force voter-fraud prosecutions in order to diminish Democratic turnout.
Lawmakers hoped Goodling's testimony would yield information that they can't get as long as the White House refuses to make Rove and other officials available for questions under oath.
Goodling said she knew of no improper reasons for the firings.
But she acknowledged an important aspect of the probe, saying she'd "crossed the lines" by applying political litmus tests when hiring career professionals.
Goodling said she'd sought to block or delay the hirings of several applicants for assistant U.S. attorneys and immigration judges if she thought their politics might not best serve the administration.
She also acknowledged researching the political backgrounds of many of them and in some cases their campaign contributions.
Lawmakers said such political interference appeared to violate not only department policy but also the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits some partisan activity by government employees.
"I believe I crossed the lines, but I didn't mean to," Goodling said.
She blamed outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty for misleading Congress in February about the firings. She denied withholding information from McNulty as he prepared his testimony and said he'd ignored information she gave him.
McNulty issued a response saying his Feb. 6 testimony was truthful "based on what I knew at that time" and that Goodling's characterization of his testimony "is wrong."
Goodling, who resigned April 7, told lawmakers that the "uncomfortable" exchange with Gonzales took place just before she went on leave in mid-March. Feeling "paralyzed" by the controversy over the firings, she'd gone to Gonzales to ask him for a transfer to a different office.
He told her he would think about it, she recalled. "He then proceeded to say, `Let me tell you what I can remember,' and he laid out for me his general recollection of some of the process regarding the replacement of U.S. attorneys. He laid out a little bit of it and he asked me if I had any reaction."
By Goodling's account, the conversation would have occurred within days of the resignation of Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and a news conference in which Gonzales said he'd had little knowledge of the firings and had played only a marginal role in the terminations, which he said were all performance-related.
That claim contradicted the strong performance evaluations that most of the fired prosecutors had received, and documentation that former Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was pushed out to give the job to Tim Griffin, a former Republican Party opposition researcher and Rove protege.
Goodling said Gonzales "just said that he thought that everybody that was on the list was on the list for a performance-related reason . . . that he really thought that Mr. Cummins was on the list because there was a performance reason there, too."
Goodling, 33, is a former Republican Party opposition researcher and religious conservative who graduated from televangelist Pat Robertson's Regent University law school. Critics have charged that she allowed her ideological leanings to guide her personnel moves.
The Justice Department has said that it's also investigating her hiring practices.