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Gonzales aide refuses again to talk about role in firings

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WASHINGTON -- A key Justice Department official who helped orchestrate the ouster of eight US attorneys last year again has rebuffed requests to talk to congressional investigators about her role in the dismissals, with her lawyer saying yesterday that she now will not even agree to an informal interview with Capitol Hill Democrats.

Monica M. Goodling, who is on leave from her job as special counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, rejected the House Judiciary Committee's request yesterday morning that she appear before committee investigators for a closed-door session about her involvement in the decisions to remove the federal prosecutors.

Democrats have expressed outrage over the dismissals, which they say have raised questions about the influence of politics on prosecutions. E-mails and other documents released by the Justice Department in recent weeks show that as the department's liaison with the White House, Goodling played a pivotal role in helping arrange the terminations.

Her lawyer, John Dowd, wrote to the Senate and House judiciary committees late last month, calling the investigations of the firings "politically charged" and saying his client would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if called to testify.

In a letter yesterday asking Goodling to appear for a voluntary interview, Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Representative Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the panel's subcommittee on administrative law, said "several of the asserted grounds [in Dowd's letter] for refusing to testify do not satisfy" the well-established basis for a proper invocation of the Fifth Amendment.

A voluntary interview with committee investigators, they said, could "obviate the need to subpoena Ms. Goodling."

Lawmakers' doubts about Gonzales's credibility and that of his deputy, Paul McNulty, do "not in any way excuse your client from answering questions honestly and to the best of her ability," wrote Conyers and Sánchez.

"If her testimony is truthful, she will have nothing to worry about in terms of a perjury prosecution," the Democrats wrote.

Dowd responded that "threats of public humiliation" for exercising constitutional rights "are not well taken and are frowned upon by the courts.

"In a free country, every citizen should have the liberty to exercise their rights without threats or coercion," he said in a statement.

Gonzales's truthfulness about the firings of seven prosecutors on Dec. 7 and one months earlier is also in question. Several lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have said he should resign.

He initially said he was never involved in discussions about the firings -- a position he later changed to say he was minimally aware of plans to remove the prosecutors. Last week, his former chief of staff said Gonzales was regularly briefed and participated in talks about "this process of asking certain US attorneys to resign."

Goodling was one of five senior Justice Department aides who met with Gonzales on Nov. 27 for a discussion in which he approved a detailed plan to carry out the firings. Department documents show she attended multiple meetings about the firings for months.

She also was among the aides who on Feb. 5 helped McNulty prepare his testimony for a Senate hearing on the firings the next day.

Additionally, Goodling was involved in an April 6, 2006, phone call between the Justice Department and Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, who had expressed concerns to the Bush administration and the president about David Iglesias, then the US attorney in Albuquerque. Domenici wanted Iglesias to push more aggressively on a corruption probe against Democrats before the 2006 elections.

In a related development yesterday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, sent a separate letter to Gonzales asking how he plans to respond to Goodling's decision to invoke her Fifth Amendment rights, since he had agreed to allow his top aides to be questioned about the firings.

The Justice Department had no immediate response.

President Bush, in remarks at the White House yesterday, said he knows of no illegalities committed in the firings late last year.

"I am genuinely concerned about their reputations, now that this has become a Washington, D.C., focus," Bush said of the eight prosecutors. "I'm sorry it's come to this. On the other hand, there had been no credible evidence of any wrongdoing."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.