Gonzales says he has `nothing to hide'

WASHINGTON—Declaring he has "nothing to hide," embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Sunday said he never sought the resignation of any U.S. attorney to influence a prosecution for political ends, but acknowledged that he and other officials made mistakes in how the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys were handled.

Gonzales, fighting to save his job as the nation's top law enforcement official, made his defense in prepared remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he will appear on Tuesday.

A Democrat on the committee, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said it did not answer any of the questions he sent Gonzales on Thursday. That means that his answers to senators' questions will be a "make or break" moment for him, Schumer said.

Senators on Tuesday will have their first chance to question Gonzales as they try to determine why Gonzales fired eight of the nation's top prosecutors. The U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, but are supposed to prosecute crimes independent of political considerations. Some members of Congress are exploring whether any of the eight was fired for refusing to follow political direction, as some of the attorneys have surmised, and replaced with conservatives close to the Bush administration.

In his prepared testimony Gonzales twice apologized to the dismissed U.S. attorneys, saying they had become victims of "an unfortunate and undignified public spectacle." He also acknowledged missteps that he said "helped to fuel the controversy."

But he did not offer specifics about any of the firings, which is the territory likely to dominate Tuesday's hearing.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Gonzales had a "steep hill to climb" to keep his job, adding, "He's going to be successful, in my opinion, only if he deals with the facts." Specter spoke Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

While acknowledging mistakes, particularly in the way the dismissals were carried out, Gonzales argued that they involved no sinister motives and no inappropriate attempt to influence prosecutions.

"I want this committee to be satisfied, to be fully reassured, that nothing improper was done," Gonzales said. "I want the American people to be reassured of the same."

He said he recalled discussions of two possible candidates to become U.S. attorneys, but indicated he could not remember what he said about them. "I do not recall making any decisions" about who should replace any of the fired prosecutors, he said.

Gonzales said he left a review of the attorneys' performance up to deputies, then signed off on their recommendations.

Gonzales also told senators that he had made staff members available to answer questions, and ordered the Justice Department to provide thousands of pages of documents.

"I have taken these important steps to provide information for two critical reasons: One, I have nothing to hide, and two, I am committed to assuring the Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here," he said.

Of his mistakes, Gonzales said:

_"It is clear to me I should have done more personally to ensure that the review process was more rigorous, and that each U.S. attorney was informed of this decision in a more personal and respectful way," he said.

In some of the eight cases, Gonzales said, Justice Department officials should have worked with the attorneys to make improvements. He said he believed the dismissals "were appropriate," but apologized to the eight and their families.

_He acknowledged that he "misspoke" at an early press conference about the controversy, but argued that he "never sought to mislead or deceive" Congress or the American people. On March 13 Gonzales said he was not involved in discussions about the cases, a statement he acknowledged was misleading because he was talking to his chief of staff about the issue.

Schumer scoffed at Gonzales' new statement, saying it "doesn't move us one tittle forward in terms of finding out what happened." He said it was "time for the contradictions and confusion to end."

Gonzales said he was not involved in determining which prosecutors would be fired, but his former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has said that he was, and so senators at the hearing will examine that contradiction, Schumer said. They'll also assess Gonzales' assertion that he never made a change of a U.S. attorney for political reasons.

Meanwhile Sunday, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., told Gonzales in the spring of 2006 that he wanted New Mexico U.S. attorney David Iglesias dismissed, and that Gonzales refused. The newspaper said that Domenici later made the same case to White House adviser Karl Rove and spoke to President Bush about it after the November election, but before the attorney firings were announced on Dec. 7. Iglesias was among those fired.

The newspaper cited "sources familiar with the firing of Iglesias, including sources close to Domenici," but did not name them.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the president did not tell Gonzales to fire Iglesias. He also said that Gonzales did not recall discussing with Domenici whether or not to replace Iglesias.

A White House spokesman, Trey Bohn, pointed to comments made by President Bush and his adviser Dan Bartlett last month when asked about the conversation with Domenici.

Bush said that in speaking to Gonzales about U.S. attorneys, "I never brought up a specific case nor gave him specific instructions." Bartlett said that "there was no directive given, as far as telling him to fire anybody or anything like that."

Domenici spokesman Chris Gallegos said Domenici would have no comment.


(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Margaret Talev contributed to this report.)