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Justice: The Keys To The White House

Yesterday, Monica Goodling, the former Justice Department liaison to the White House, finally testified before Congress about her role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

May 24, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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JUSTICE

The Keys To The White House

Yesterday, Monica Goodling, the former Justice Department liaison to the White House, finally testified before Congress about her role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year. Expectations were high for Goodling, who had negotiated immunity after invoking her Fifth Amendment rights, with some saying she held “the keys to the kingdom” of the scandal. But her appearance before the House Judiciary Committee resulted in more of the same — yet another Justice official deflecting responsibility for the firings while pointing fingers at others. Goodling is the fifth Justice official involved in the firings to speak before Congress about the scandal, but after all the testimonies — including two appearances by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — no one has offered an explanation for where the list of potential targets came from and why particular attorneys were placed on it. Though her testimony did not answer such key questions, Goodling’s remarks did shine a bright light on the careless disregard for the law at the Gonzales Justice Department and raised new questions about how deeply involved the White House was in the firing process.

IT WASN’T ME: Following the lead of the attorney general, Goodling pointed to Gonzales’a former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, as the person who “compiled the list,” claiming that “at different times he talked to different people about it. He never told me exactly who recommended which name and at what time they did that.” “I know that he did speak to the Deputy Attorney General [Paul McNulty] about it,” she added. Goodling’s passing of the buck echoes every other high-ranking Justice Department official who have denied that they personally named attorneys to be dismissed. “Michael Battle, the former Director of the Executive Office of United States Attorneys, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, Kyle Sampson, and William E. Moschella, the principal associate deputy attorney general, all have told Congress that they did not put any names on the list.” The only two other principals who were supposedly consulted about the firings — Michael Elston, Paul McNulty’s chief of staff, and acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer — have yet to publicly comment on their roles, but they have privately spoken to congressional investigators; Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has said that they “deny making the actual decision to place these names on the list.”      

AN ‘UNCOMFORTABLE’ CONVERSATION:
The most damaging revelation in Goodling’s testimony was her disclosure that just before she took a leave of absence from the Department of Justice, Gonzales personally attempted to shape her future testimony to Congress about the U.S. attorney purge. Describing it as an “uncomfortable” conversation, Goodling claimed that in a personal meeting with Gonzales, he “laid out…his general recollection…of some of the process…regarding the replacement of the U.S. attorneys.” After he had “laid out a little bit of it,” Gonzales asked Goodling if she “had any reaction to his iteration.” “I didn’t know that it was, maybe, appropriate for us to talk about that at that point,” she added. The conversation took place on either March 14 or 15, a week after “the House Judiciary Committee requested that Goodling testify before the committee.” Her testimony indicates that the Attorney General may have crossed “into a borderline area of coaching a likely witness before the eventual testimony,” which could potentially be viewed as obstruction of justice under 18 USC section 1505. Goodling denied that Gonzales was trying to “shape” her “recollection,” though she acknowledged that the conversation was not “appropriate.” Even if the conversation was not an attempt to influence her future testimony, “lawmakers said her disclosure was important nonetheless because it seemed to contradict Gonzales’s testimony to Congress under oath the he couldn’t answer some details about the firings because he had to avoid discussing details with his staff in order to avoid any perception that he was compromising congressional and two internal investigations.”

PARTISAN HIRINGS: In March 2006, in a highly confidential order, Gonzales delegated to Goodling and Sampson extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department. In her opening statement yesterday, Goodling admitted to abusing that power by taking “inappropriate political considerations into account” while hiring career employees at the Department. Later during the hearing, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked whether her actions had broken the law. She first tried to dodge the question, saying “that’s not a conclusion for me to make” and “I don’t believe I intended to commit a crime.” But Scott persisted, listing the various types of laws that may have been broken, again asking, “[W]ere there any laws that you could have broken by taking political considerations into account, quote, on some occasions?” Goodling finally relented, admitting, “I crossed the lines, but I didn’t mean to.” “I don’t think that I could have done it more than 50 times, but I don’t know,” she also stated. Goodling’s actions, which included questioning applicants about their political preferences and even researching their past political donations, were against the law, as “federal law and Justice Department policies bar the consideration of political affiliation in hiring of personnel for non-political, career jobs.”

ALL ROADS LEAD TO WHITE HOUSE:
Though Goodling denied in her testimony that she was “the primary White House contact for purposes of the development or approval of the U.S. Attorney replacement plan,” the denials of her own role in the firings only point more fingers at the White House. “What we have heard today seems to reinforce the mounting evidence that the White House was pulling the strings on this project to target certain prosecutors in different parts of the country,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) yesterday. Goodling indicated that the purge may have arose from a group of select White House advisers, known as the White House Judicial Selection Committee. She explained that she had never attended a meeting of the group, but Gonzales and Sampson did. She also described how the White House attempted to avoid the appearance of its involvement by telling her not to show her face before congressional investigators because “if someone recognized me as the White House liaison, the members would be more likely to ask questions about the White House.” Ultimately though, Goodling admitted she “can’t give” the “whole White House story.” As the Washington Post wrote in an editorial today, “Lawmakers need to hear from those who can,” such as Harriet Miers and Karl Rove.

UNDER THE RADAR

HEALTH CARE — FDA REITERATES BAN ON GAY MEN DONATING BLOOD, DESPITE RED CROSS OBJECTIONS: Gay men are still banned for life from giving blood, “leaving in place — for now — a 1983 prohibition meant to prevent the spread of HIV through transfusions.” The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ban prevents an estimated 62,300 gay and bisexual men per year from donating blood, despite the Red Cross calling the policy “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” On its website, the FDA attempts to justify the 24-year-old rule by arguing that current HIV testing cannot always pick up right away when someone is HIV positive: “The ‘window period’ exists very early after infection, where even current HIV testing methods cannot detect all infections. … For this reason, a person could test negative, even when they are actually HIV positive and infectious.” Yet last year, the Red Cross, the international blood association AABB, and America’s Blood Centers all called on the FDA to reverse the ban. They explained that such “window period” risks have been negated by modern blood tests, which “can detect HIV-positive donors within just 10 to 21 days of infection.” To ensure such risks were minimized further, their proposal included a “one-year deferral following male-to-male sexual contact.” More information about donating blood is available HERE.

ENVIRONMENT — POLLUTERS FLOURISH UNDER THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION: “Environmental enforcement efforts by the U.S. EPA and the Justice Department have plummeted over the last five years, resulting in a 38 percent decline in criminal fines and a 25 percent drop in civil penalties, according to a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).” Through examination of ten years of federal data, the group concluded that enforcement was much stronger under the Clinton administration but has lacked since President Bush took office. The EIP’s analysis revealed that the EPA’s effectiveness has dropped in four of five categories: cases filed, number of civil penalties, criminal fines, and criminal investigations. The only category which did not decline was “value of enforcements,” but the EIP adds that even this is “endangered” because the Bush administration continues to “try to weaken or eliminate New Source Review” rules, which are designed to ensure that power plants meet pollution guidelines under the Clean Air Act. Reflecting the dismal enforcement under Bush, the EIP reports that the Justice Department files, on average, only 16 lawsuits per year “against polluters who refuse to settle,” whereas the Clinton administration prosecuted an average of 52 per year. The Bush administration was quick to deny the claims. “Any suggestion that the Justice Department is not enforcing the nation’s laws is utterly false,” said Matthew J. McKeown of the Department of Justice. “The bad news here is that it now costs less to pollute,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the EIP and a former top official at the EPA. “A good environmental program needs to make polluters pay for their violations.”

ETHICS — JUSTICE OFFICIALS CONFIRM WHITE HOUSE INSTIGATED PLAN TO BYPASS SENATE ON U.S. ATTORNEY:
Both Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson approved a plan to bypass the Senate and install Karl Rove-protege Tim Griffin as U.S. attorney in Arkansas. But private testimony by Sampson reveals that the idea was “instigated” by the White House. According to Karen Tumulty of Time, “Pressure to do it, he suggested, was coming from officials at the White House — specifically, White House political director Sara Taylor, her deputy Scott Jennings and Chris Oprison, the associate White House counsel. Sampson described himself and Goodling as ‘open to the idea,’ which is not the same as instigating it.” Taylor reports directly to Rove. In a Dec. 19, 2006 e-mail, Sampson said that getting Griffin “appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.” Additionally, according to written testimony by Bud Cummins — the prosecutor Griffin replaced — Michael Elston, the chief of staff to former Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, said that the plan to install Griffin and circumvent Senate approval was completely dictated by the White House. Cummins wrote, “Elston denied knowing anything about anyone’s intention to circumvent Senate confirmation in Griffin’s case. He said that might have been the White House’s plan, but they ‘never read DOJ into that plan’ and DOJ would never go along with it. This indicated to me that my removal had been dictated entirely by the White House.” Fortunately, in a 306-114 vote, the House recently passed legislation “that would curb President Bush’s power to appoint prosecutors indefinitely,” limiting interim U.S. attorneys’ terms to 120 days. The Senate has already approved the bill, and it now heads to Bush for his signature.

THINK FAST

Iraqi Health Ministry statistics show that sectarian killings “are rising again.” Already, 321 unidentified corpses, “many dumped and showing signs of torture and execution,” have been found in Baghdad this month — the same number found in all of January, before the escalation was launched.

Congressional leaders say they dropped Iraq timeline legislation because “White House attacks that they were again on vacation” for Memorial Day while the troops were fighting on the ground “seemed more politically threatening to them” than anger “from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.”

Three more military language specialists have been discharged for being gay, and the House Armed Services Committee wants the Pentagon “to explain how it can afford to let the valuable language specialists go.”

“Hoping to subdue a rising wave of resistance” within their ranks, House leaders “are set to put their long-stalled lobbying reform package to a vote today.” 

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) yesterday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates “seeking assurances that military leaders had drawn up ‘contingency’ plans so that American troops could pull out of Iraq without ‘unnecessary danger.'”

“The House approved legislation yesterday to upgrade and expand the nation’s network of health care and benefit outreach centers for military veterans,” one of seven veteran-related bills “that the House approved yesterday to provide millions more dollars in benefits.”

Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has sued the White House “alleging the administration refuses to comply with a public records request related to more than 5 million e-mails from administration officials that have gone missing.”

And finally: A conservative journalist falls in love with Mitt Romney’s wife. Newsmax’s Ronald Kessler writes, “Ann is warm and very natural. She has the look of an outdoors woman bred to be an equestrian, which she is — good carriage, rosy complexion, square jaw, and blond mane. When she is not flashing her truly unbelievable smile, she may lower her eyes demurely. … She lowers her eyes, thinking, and then looks up directly at her interviewer and dazzles him with that smile.”

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GOOD NEWS

Manufacturing industry lobbyist Michael Baroody yesterday withdrew his nomination to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission under strong opposition from consumer groups.

STATE WATCH

NEW JERSEY: New Jersey is the only state in the nation with an average gas price of under $3 per gallon.

GEORGIA: Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signs legislation requiring providers to offer women an ultrasound of the fetus prior to abortion.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Twenty-five percent of the District’s fire hydrants may be broken.

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-MS) falsely claims President Bush would never declassify intelligence “just for political purposes.”

MIDDLE EAST BULLETIN: The Center for American Progress has launched a newsletter with the latest news and progressive analysis on events in the Middle East.

TAPPED: With seven days still to go, “May 2007 caps the deadliest six-month period for America of the entire Iraq war.”

CAPITOL BRIEFING: Monica Goodling’s lawyers told lawmakers to ask about her “uncomfortable” meeting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

DAILY GRILL

“I have not gone back and spoken directly with Mr. Sampson and others who are involved in this process in order to protect the integrity of this investigation and the investigation of the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Office of Inspector General. I am a fact witness. They are fact witnesses.”
— Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 5/10/07

VERSUS

DAVIS: Ms. Goodling, did the attorney general have a conversation with you regarding the terminations of United States attorneys?
GOODLING: Yes, he did.
DAVIS: And when did this conversation happen?
GOODLING: It was in March, before I left the department.
DAVIS: Did you know you might be a fact witness at that point, Ms. Goodling?
GOODLING: Yes.
— Former Justice Department liaison to the White House Monica Goodling, 5/24/07, in an exchange with Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL)