Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty told congressional investigators he didn't learn of a plan to fire U.S. attorneys until late October and didn't know why they were targeted for removal, Senate aides said.
McNulty, interviewed in private on April 27 by House and Senate lawyers, said he never asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, the reasons for the eight dismissals, said one aide. The two aides spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that seven U.S. attorneys who were asked to resign on Dec. 7 were drawn from a "consensus'' of senior Justice Department officials. Neither Gonzales nor Sampson, who also testified before the committee, could say why individual prosecutors were singled out.
House and Senate committees are questioning whether aides to President George W. Bush ordered the dismissals for partisan motives, such as to spur investigations of Democrats or thwart prosecutions of Republicans.
"We are pursuing all of the leads to figure out who was responsible,'' said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "All signs point to the White House and particularly Mr. Rove, in terms of choosing the victims of their purge.''
Bush has refused to let Karl Rove, his top political adviser, and other presidential aides testify under oath before Congress on the firings. House and Senate panels have authorized subpoenas for Rove and other aides, including former White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
Today, a House subcommittee subpoenaed McNulty's predecessor, James B. Comey, to testify in two days about his knowledge of plans to fire the attorneys. Comey, now general counsel of Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT), left office in October 2005, months after the first discussions of replacing U.S. attorneys.
McNulty told investigators he didn't suggest the names of any prosecutors to be fired, the Senate aides said. Instead, he said, he deferred to Gonzales and Sampson, who resigned in March amid a political furor that has prompted calls for the attorney general to quit.
Sampson has told lawmakers he assembled a list of U.S. attorneys being considered for dismissal from names provided by Justice Department officials.
McNulty told investigators he had inaccurately briefed senators earlier this year when he said the Bush administration intended to seek Senate confirmation for the replacement for H.E. "Bud'' Cummins III, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas, one Senate aide said. Cummins, asked to resign in June, left office in December.
Sampson said in a December 2006 e-mail turned over to Congress that the Bush administration could use a provision enacted by Congress last year to give an indefinite appointment to Timothy Griffin, a former Rove assistant, to succeed Cummins. Congress this year voted to repeal the year-old provision.
McNulty didn't try to blame Sampson or Monica Goodling, another former Gonzales aide, for inaccuracies in his Senate testimony on Feb. 6, the Senate aides said. On that day, McNulty told the Judiciary Committee that the White House had only limited involvement in the dismissals.
Asked by New York Democrat Charles Schumer if members of Bush's staff at the White House were "involved in any way,'' McNulty replied, "These were presidential appointments, so the White House personnel, I'm sure, was consulted.''
White House role
E-mails between Sampson and White House officials, which were also routed to McNulty and his top aides in late 2006, suggest that presidential advisers initiated the dismissals. Sampson traded with White House lawyers the list of prosecutors to be replaced as well as a plan for informing them and home-state senators of the dismissals, the documents show.
McNulty told investigators he wasn't focused on the details of the dismissals last year, one Senate aide said.
Through her lawyer, Goodling, Gonzales' former White House liaison, has cited allegations by McNulty that he was misled by Justice Department aides as grounds for her refusal to testify before congressional committees. Goodling invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
The House Judiciary Committee voted last week to compel her testimony by granting her limited immunity from prosecution. House lawyers may seek the immunity grant as early as May 7.
Democrats, meanwhile, criticized an order Gonzales issued in March that authorized his top aides to decide on hiring and firing 84 political appointees in the Justice Department and 51 officials who are members of the senior executive service.
Schumer said in a statement that the memo, first reported by the National Journal, showed that Gonzales contemplated making "an extraordinary delegation of power to two young and unaccountable staffers who may have taken their marching orders directly from the White House.''
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the "order simply gives the chief of staff and the White House liaison the authority to execute certain decisions'' about hiring and firing non-career officials with the attorney general's approval.