Top Gonzales aide resigns after refusing to testify

WASHINGTON—A top deputy to embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned abruptly Friday, two weeks after she said she'd invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than testify to congressional investigators who are probing the Bush administration's firing and hiring of eight federal prosecutors.

Monica Goodling was the senior counsel to Gonzales and the liaison between the Justice Department and the White House, which puts her in a position to answer questions about whether top administration officials hired and fired some federal prosecutors for partisan political reasons.

Her three-sentence resignation, effective Saturday, came days after some senators wrote to the Justice Department asking how Goodling could remain on the job after she'd decided to assert her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said it was his understanding that the Justice Department had opened two internal inquiries into the hirings and firings, and that department employees must cooperate with such investigations. Senators argued that a witness who cooperates with an internal investigation couldn't then take the Fifth Amendment in a congressional inquiry into the same matter.

"This doesn't change our interest in her," said a senior Judiciary Committee aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Goodling's resignation. "The committee still wants to know what she knew and when she knew it."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who's been leading the Senate inquiry into the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys last year, said in a news release that with three top officials now having resigned over the controversy, "Attorney General Gonzales' hold on the department gets more tenuous each day."

Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, and Michael Battle, former director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, already have resigned.

Adding to the turmoil, four top deputies in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota have resigned their leadership posts in an apparent protest of the leadership of Minnesota U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose, 34, who was appointed a year ago after serving as an assistant to Gonzales and his top deputy, Paul McNulty.

The situation in Minnesota "will send shock waves through the rank and file," said a former Justice Department lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he's in regular contact with federal prosecutors. "The terrible truth is, U.S. attorney's offices are demoralized. The morale throughout the country is as low as it has ever been."

The lawyer also said he'd spoken with two assistant U.S. attorneys who'd been approached to fill vacant U.S. attorney positions in Arizona, California, Florida and New Mexico. He said they declined to be considered because "The turmoil is just not worth it."

The Justice Department stood by Paulose on Friday, saying through spokesman Brian Roehrkasse that she "is dedicated to leading an effective U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota and enforcing the laws to ensure public safety."

Paulose—a Yale Law School graduate with strong academic and conservative credentials, ties to Minnesota and some experience as a federal prosecutor and in private practice—declined to be interviewed.

In a statement that her office issued, she said "the management team supports the decisions of the three who stepped down." It's unclear what that means, because her four deputies who stepped aside composed the management team.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who recommended Paulose for the job, couldn't be reached Friday, but his spokesman Luke Friedrich said he was "monitoring the situation, and we are in the process of collecting more information about the resignations."

Paulose's predecessor, Thomas Heffelfinger, said in a telephone interview Friday that he hadn't spoken with the four subordinates about their decisions. But he said all four were "very stable, hardworking, competent. So whatever is going on inside is serious."

Heffelfinger left in February 2006 for the private sector, and has said he wasn't forced to resign. However, the congressional investigation into the eight firings has found that the administration had a broader plan dating to 2005 for replacing U.S. attorneys with younger Bush administration loyalists.

Paulose's office on Friday confirmed the decisions by first assistant U.S. Attorney John Marti, criminal division chief James Lackner, civil chief Erika Mozangue and acting administrative officer Tim Anderson to give up their management posts after Minnesota news organizations reported them Thursday night. All will remain on staff at the Minnesota office.