WASHINGTON -- Monica Goodling , the former senior aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who resigned last month as Congress investigated the firing of nine US attorneys, told a House committee yesterday that she tried to block the hiring of people she believed to be Democrats for non partisan career Justice Department positions.
Goodling's admission that she considered party affiliation when vetting candidates for civil service assistant prosecutor jobs added to a growing picture of politicization of the nation's law enforcement system under Gonzales, critics alleged . Under federal law, officials may not take politics into account when hiring for civil service jobs.
The testimony of Goodling, obtained under a grant of immunity from prosecution, had also been widely expected to shed light on possible White House involvement in the decision to fire the nine US attorneys last year. But Goodling, who was the Justice Department's liaison to the White House, said she never spoke to either presidential adviser Karl Rove or former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers about the firings.
Internal Justice Department documents have indicated that Rove and Miers were involved in discussions about the firings.
"I wish to clarify my role as White House liaison," Goodling testified. "Despite that title, I did not hold the keys to the kingdom, as some have suggested. I was not the primary White House contact for purposes of the development or approval of the US attorney replacement plan."
She told the House Judiciary Committee that she did not know who decided which US attorneys would be fired. Democrats have contended that senior Republicans wanted certain US attorneys removed because they did not bring corruption cases against Democrats or had pursued such cases against Republicans.
Goodling said that as far as she knew no one in the Justice Department wanted to fire the US attorneys in order "to interfere with a particular case or in retaliation for prosecuting or refusing to prosecute a particular case for political advantage."
Nonetheless, Goodling acknowledged that she allowed politics to affect her hiring decisions for lower-level positions. She said she tried to block the hiring of a career assistant prosecutor for the US attorney's office in the District of Columbia because she felt he was too liberal. He eventually was hired. She also said there were several other occasions in which she took politics into account in hiring decisions.
"I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions," Goodling said. "I know I crossed the line," and "I regret those mistakes," she added.
Goodling also took aim at Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty , who earlier this month announced he would leave office late this summer. McNulty has been accused of misleading Congress by testifying in February that the White House had not been involved in the plan to fire the US attorneys. He later contended that Goodling had withheld critical information from him .
But Goodling yesterday denied withholding information from McNulty, whom she described as having been "not fully candid" with Congress. She said McNulty had known that the White House was involved in the plan. She also said she had told him that White House officials wanted to install a Rove aide as a replacement US attorney in Arkansas.
She also recalled accompanying McNulty to another briefing at the Senate on Feb. 14, 2007. But once they arrived, she said, McNulty told her to stay outside because "if someone recognized me as the White House liaison, the members would be more likely to ask questions about the White House."
McNulty released a statement yesterday contradicting Goodling's testimony, insisting that he had "testified truthfully" to Congress "based on what I knew at the time."
"Ms. Goodling's characterization of my testimony is wrong and not supported by the extensive record of documents and testimony already provided to Congress," McNulty said.
The hearing room was overflowing with photographers, congressional staff, and members of the public. Goodling had made no public statements or appearances since April, when her attorneys informed Congress that she was invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and would not answer their questions.
Congress eventually voted to grant Goodling limited immunity in exchange for her testimony, a request that was cleared by a federal judge.
Goodling's role in the firings attracted particularly intense attention as accusations by Democrats that the Bush administration had put ideology above qualifications for key Justice Department positions grew. Goodling had scant prosecutorial experience and earned her law degree in 1999 from televangelist Pat Robertson 's Regent University, whose web site touts having 150 alumni in Bush administration positions.
Yesterday, some Republicans used their time to defend the rising influence of Regent University in the federal government. At least three members compared Regent to Harvard University, noting that the Ivy League institution was also a Bible-based school when it was founded in 1636 to help train ministers in the New World.
"I would submit that Regent . . . is a successor to Harvard in being founded upon religious principles," said Representative Steve King , Republican of Iowa.
"And this nation was founded upon religious principles, as was our Constitution. And so I think it is a laudable thing, not a derogatory thing."
Goodling remained poised and calm as the day progressed, often watching quietly as Republicans and Democrats squabbled on the dais. Throughout the hearing, Republicans repeatedly said the controversy over the firings was overblown, while Democrats insisted that the credibility of the nation's justice system had been damaged.
After several hours, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner , the Wisconsin Republican who chaired the House Judiciary Committee before Republicans lost control of Congress, said the congressional investigation into the firings should come to an end.
"This committee has spent $250,000 of the taxpayers' money . . . It seems to me that with this fishing expedition there ain't no fish in the water, and we've spent an awful lot of time and an awful lot of money finding that out," Sensenbrenner said.
But Democrats said the probe needed to continue. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick J. Leahy , Democrat of Vermont, said Goodling's testimony "confirms our worst fears about the unprecedented and improper reach of politics into the department's professional ranks."