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Gonzales parries questions on firings

Controversy losing steam, GOP maintains

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confidently deflected House Democrats' demands yesterday for details in the firings of US attorneys, appearing ever more likely to survive accusations that the dismissals were politically motivated.

Republican lawmakers rushed to Gonzales's defense as the attorney general denied anew that the firings last year were improper.

The mostly muted five-hour hearing before the House Judiciary Committee was a sharp contrast to Gonzales's sometimes-testy appearance three weeks ago when Senate Republicans questioned his competence to run the Justice Department. One senator at that session joined a small GOP chorus saying he should step down.

Yesterday's hearing served up more political bickering but few new facts about the firings. Gonzales mostly stuck to a script of accepting responsibility and pushing beyond the controversy.

"I will work as hard as I can, working with this committee and working with [Department of Justice] employees, to reassure the American people that this department is focused on doing its job," Gonzales said yesterday.

That didn't satisfy exasperated Democrats, who accused Gonzales of being evasive.

"Your reputation is on the line, Mr. Attorney General. What do you have to say for yourself?" asked Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California. The "buck stops at the top," she said.

"I accept responsibility," Gonzales answered,

President Bush has steadfastly stood by Gonzales, his longtime counselor and friend. Even career Justice Department staff members angered by the attorney general's response to the firings concede Gonzales appears to have beaten back calls to leave.

Republicans sought to portray the controversy as losing steam, and they pushed their Democratic counterparts to wrap up the congressional probe that has dogged the Justice Department since the beginning of the year.

"The list of accusations has mushroomed, but the evidence of wrongdoing has not," said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the committee.

Still, Gonzales acknowledged low morale at the department. Career prosecutors have said that is stunting hiring, and private defense lawyers say it has led to government hesitation and indecisiveness in some courtrooms. Gonzales maintained, however, that the department's independence is intact.

"Contrary to being gun-shy, this process is somewhat liberating in terms of going forward," he said.

Gonzales repeatedly said he was unaware of many of the factors leading up to the dismissals because he relied on his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, to carry them out.

He said he has "no basis to believe" that Todd P. Graves, the former prosecutor in Kansas City, Mo., left in early 2006 because he refused to endorse Justice Department allegations about voter fraud in Missouri. Gonzales praised the work of Debra Yang, formerly the US attorney in Los Angeles, who resigned in October to take a higher-paying job at a private firm.

Neither Graves nor Yang are among the eight prosecutors whose dismissals are being investigated, but questions about their resignations have surfaced.

Gonzales denied that Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, demanded last fall's ouster of then-New Mexico prosecutor David C. Iglesias. But he acknowledged that Rove had complained about stagnant voter fraud cases in three districts, including New Mexico, and said those concerns were echoed by Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico.

Those complaints spurred suspicions that Iglesias was improperly fired because he refused to target Democrats.

On the other side, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, leaned on Gonzales yesterday to speed up the department's corruption investigation of Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana.

"Congressman, you know I cannot talk about that," Gonzales told Sensenbrenner.

"Well, everybody's talking about it except you," Sensenbrenner answered. "The people's confidence in your department has been further eroded, separate and apart from the US attorney controversy, because of the delay in dealing with this matter."