McNulty Back for Second Round

Posted June 20, 2007 at 6:42pm

Congressional Democrats plan to advance on two fronts today in the investigation springing from the Justice Department’s firing of nine federal prosecutors in 2006.

A House subcommittee will hear from outgoing Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who will state that his original Congressional testimony in February was “in some respects incomplete,” according to his opening statement.

“And I also want to be clear that I do not believe, and have never believed, that anyone in the Department of Justice set out to mislead me,” McNulty will testify, referring to accounts that he privately told Senators that ex-Justice Department officials Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling failed to inform him about the extent of White House involvement in the firings.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct an oversight hearing of the Justice Department’s controversial Civil Rights division, focusing on how much clout political appointees had in overruling career prosecutors.

Yet by all accounts, the Justice Department portion of the wide-ranging, six-month probe is wrapping up and Congressional Democrats are setting their sights primarily on White House officials, who they believe hold the key to why the prosecutors were dumped.

Top Congressional Democrats have yet to receive any concrete answers on whether the White House will comply with subpoenas issued last week for the July testimony of former White House counsel Harriet Miers and ex-White House political director Sara Taylor.

The White House has several options for responding to the request for documents and witness testimony. White House counsel Fred Fielding could fully agree to Congressional demands, negotiate a middle-ground solution or flatly refuse lawmakers’ demands.

Democratic aides stressed Wednesday that the outcome of such decisions was still in flux. They are waiting to see how Taylor’s attorneys and Fielding respond to a request for documents due by June 28. White House spokesman Tony Snow has said it is “way premature” to speculate on whether the White House would go to court to prevent the subpoenas’ enforcement.

But if the White House chooses that route, the next likely move would be for the House and Senate Judiciary committees to consider a Congressional contempt motion that, if approved by the full chambers, would send the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for grand jury action.

But that may further complicate matters as the man in charge of federal prosecutors also is at the center of the scandal: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales effectively could halt any action by federal prosecutors.

Congress “has upped the ante” by issuing subpoenas to Miers and Taylor, said former House counsel Stan Brand. But the White House “assessment is going to be they’re in a strong position because there’s no readily available judicial review,” Brand added. “If I’m Fred Fielding, he knows it’s not going to court because he controls the U.S. attorney.”

Brand represented the House during the messy case of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was cited for contempt by the House in 1982 for refusing to turn over documents on the instructions of her boss, President Ronald Reagan.

The Justice Department refused to prosecute Burford — arguing in court that the House had violated the separation of powers doctrine. That case was ultimately dismissed, and the Reagan administration ceded to political pressure to provide documents.

Though they don’t expect fireworks from McNulty’s testimony before the Judiciary subcommittee on commercial and administrative law, chaired by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), aides said he will have to clarify direct conflicts with Goodling’s testimony.

In a May 23 appearance before the full committee, Goodling — who was testifying with immunity from prosecution — said McNulty was aware of White House involvement in the firing of the federal prosecutors when he spoke to Senators in February.

She said he gave “incomplete” and “inaccurate” testimony to Congress and called the charges that he was poorly prepared for the hearing by her and Sampson “false.”

In his opening statement provided to Roll Call, McNulty — a former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee — seeks to back away from allegations, made privately to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that Goodling and Sampson weren’t straightforward.

Instead, he said the “thousands of documents” provided since the scandal broke prove that “many in the Department struggled with how best to provide Congress with accurate information” while at the same time protecting the reputations of the dismissed prosecutors.

McNulty stresses that “at all times, I have sought to provide Congress with the truth.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) will lead an oversight hearing today into the Civil Rights division. Witnesses include Assistant Attorney General Wan Kim.

The Civil Rights division has come under scrutiny during the U.S. attorney scandal because it was briefly headed by Bradley Schlozman, who replaced dismissed prosecutor Todd Graves as interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo. In that post, Schlozman pursued a voter-fraud investigation just before an election despite the fact that such probes typically violated department norms.

Schlozman has also been accused of using improper political criteria in recommending and hiring Justice Department officials. Hiring practices and the outflux of career officials from the Civil Rights division are likely to be hot topics at today’s hearing.