US attorney-general defends firings

Senators sceptical of Alberto Gonzales' testimony on dismissal of prosecutors.

    Gonzales takes his witness seat before the senate committee on Capitol Hill on Thursday [AFP]


    "To the contrary, I have been extremely forthcoming with information. Finally, and let me be clear about this: while the process that led to the resignations was flawed, I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred."
     
    Gonzales sat alone at the witness table in a crowded hearing room for the widely anticipated hearing.
     
    'Minor role'
     
    The nation's chief law-enforcement officer said he played only a minor role in the dismissal of the prosecutors who Democrats suspect were removed for political reasons.

    "It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House and (they) just made up reasons to fire them"

    Lindsey Graham,
    Republican Senator

    Gonzales began his turn as a witness after a tongue-lashing from Patrick Leahy, the committee's Democratic chairman.
     
    "Today the department of justice is experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivalled during its 137-year history," Leahy said.
     
    "There's a growing scandal swirling around the dismissal" of prosecutors.
     
    Apology offered
     
    Gonzales said that despite initial administration claims that the prosecutors had been fired for inadequate performance, he approved their dismissals without looking at their job evaluations.
     
    He offered an apology to the eight and their families for their treatment.
     
    Gonzales has provided differing versions of the events surrounding the firings, first saying he had almost no involvement and then later acknowledging that his role was larger - but only after emails about meetings he attended were released by the justice department to House of Representatives and senate committees.
     
    "The moment I believe I can no longer be effective I will resign as attorney-general," he said after first making it clear he did not believe it had come to that.
     
    The White House offered support. Dana Perino, spokeswoman, said: "I think the president has full confidence" in his attorney general.
     
    Scepticism
     
    Democrats and Bush's Republican partymates alike expressed scepticism at Gonzales' testimony.
     
    "Most of this is a stretch," Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator, said after listening to Gonzales' explanation of the dismissals.
     
    "It's clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or the White House and [they] just made up reasons to fire them."
     
    Arlen Specter, Republican senator, said: "We have to evaluate whether you are really being forthright."
     
    He said Gonzales' description was "significantly if not totally at variance with the facts".
     
    More grilling
     
    Democrats, too, weighed in.
     
    "Since you apparently knew very little about the performance about the replaced United States attorneys, how can you testify that the judgement ought to stand?" asked Edward M Kennedy, Democratic senator.
     
    Chuck Schumer, Democratic senator from New York, questioned Gonzales sharply over his insistence that one former prosecutor, Carol Lam of California, had been told of justice department concerns with her record on immigration violations.
     
    The senator said she had testified to the contrary.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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