Gonzales Said He Would Quit in Raid Dispute


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

May 27, 2006

Gonzales Said He Would Quit in Raid Dispute

WASHINGTON, May 26 - Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the F.B.I. 
director, Robert S. Mueller III, and senior officials and career 
prosecutors at the Justice Department told associates this week that 
they were prepared to quit if the White House directed them to 
relinquish evidence seized in a bitterly disputed search of a House 
member's office, government officials said Friday.

Mr. Gonzales was joined in raising the possibility of resignation by 
the deputy attorney general, Paul J. McNulty, the officials said. Mr. 
Gonzales and Mr. McNulty told associates that they had an obligation 
to protect evidence in a criminal case and would be unwilling to 
carry out any White House order to return the material to Congress.

The potential showdown was averted Thursday when President Bush 
ordered the evidence to be sealed for 45 days to give Congress and 
the Justice Department a chance to work out a deal.

The evidence was seized by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents 
last Saturday night in a search of the office of Representative 
William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana. The search set off an 
uproar of protest by House leaders in both parties, who said the 
intrusion by an executive branch agency into a Congressional office 
violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine. They 
demanded that the Justice Department return the evidence.

The possibility of resignations underscored the gravity of the crisis 
that gripped the Justice Department as the administration grappled 
with how to balance the pressure from its own party on Capitol Hill 
against the principle that a criminal investigation, especially one 
involving a member of Congress, should be kept well clear of 
political considerations.

It is not clear precisely what message Mr. Gonzales delivered to Mr. 
Bush when they met Thursday morning at the White House, or whether he 
informed the president of the resignation talk. But hours later, the 
White House announced that the evidence would be sealed for 45 days 
in the custody of the solicitor general, the Justice Department 
official who represents the government before the Supreme Court. That 
arrangement ended the talk of resignations.

F.B.I. officials would not comment Friday on Mr. Mueller's thinking 
or on whether his views had been communicated to the president.

The White House said Mr. Bush devised the 45-day plan as a way to 
cool tempers in Congress and the Justice Department. "The president 
saw both sides becoming more entrenched," said Dan Bartlett, Mr. 
Bush's counselor. "Emotions were running high; that's why the 
president felt he had to weigh in."

Tensions were especially high because officials at the Justice 
Department and the F.B.I. viewed the Congressional protest, led by 
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and House Republicans, as largely a proxy 
fight for battles likely to come over criminal investigations into 
other Republicans in Congress.

Separate investigations into the activities of the lobbyist Jack 
Abramoff and Randy Cunningham, the former congressman from 
California, have placed several other Republicans under scrutiny; in 
the Cunningham case, federal authorities have informally asked to 
interview nine former staff members of the House Appropriations and 
Intelligence Committees.

By Friday, the strong words and tense behind-the-scenes meetings of 
the previous few days had been replaced, in public at least, by 
conciliatory terms and images of accommodation. Mr. Gonzales traveled 
to Capitol Hill and met with Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the 
majority leader, as Republican leaders explored a formal procedure to 
cover any future searches.

"We've been working hard already, and we'll continue to do so 
pursuant to the president's order," Mr. Gonzales told reporters on 
his way to the meeting.

After the meeting, Mr. Frist said, "I want to know as leader exactly 
what would happen if there was a similar sort of case."

Senior lawmakers in the House and Senate said their intent was not to 
prohibit searches of Congressional offices if there was a legitimate 
reason. But they said the Jefferson case powerfully illustrated how 
Congress and the administration had no set guidelines for how such a 
search should be done, what notice was required and how law 
enforcement and House authorities would interact.

But within the Justice Department and the F.B.I., some officials 
complained that the 45-day cooling-off arrangement was a politically 
motivated intrusion into the investigative process. Others said the 
deal was preferable to what some called the potential "cataclysm" of 
possible resignations if the department had been ordered to give up 
the material, as one official briefed on the negotiations described 
it. This official and others at the department and the F.B.I. were 
granted anonymity to discuss a continuing criminal case.

At the Justice Department, there was hope that the courts might 
quickly resolve the issue. Government lawyers prepared a brief on 
Friday in opposition to the motion filed by lawyers for Mr. Jefferson 
seeking the return of materials taken from his office. The F.B.I. 
search was conducted on the basis of a search warrant issued by a 
federal judge, T. S. Ellis, in Alexandria, Va.

On Friday, Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi and chairman 
of the Rules Committee, said he had been meeting with Senate counsel 
to explore potential procedures and had given Mr. Frist a memorandum 
on a possible approach.

"The Justice Department is going to have to look at what we put in 
place and agree to it," Mr. Lott said. "I hope we can work it out."

But he said, "I am perfectly willing to get it on with the 
administration and take it right to the Supreme Court if they want to 
argue over it."

To some, the most astounding aspect of the Jefferson clash is that 
the question has never arisen before in two centuries of assorted 
Congressional criminality and misconduct.

At the same time, law enforcement officials said the deal did not 
mean that the Jefferson investigation would stop until the 
disagreement about the evidence was resolved. Mr. Jefferson has 
denied wrongdoing, but within law enforcement circles it is regarded 
as all but certain - based on evidence already collected - that he 
will face indictment on bribery-related charges.

On Friday, Brent Pfeffer, a former aide to the lawmaker, was 
sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to 
conspiracy charges related to a kickback scheme involving Mr. 
Jefferson, identified in court documents only as "Representative A."

Mr. Pfeffer said he was an intermediary in an effort by Mr. Jefferson 
to obtain money from a Kentucky telecommunications firm for help 
getting contracts in Nigeria.

The investigation is being handled by the United States attorney's 
office in Alexandria, which until recently was headed by Mr. McNulty. 
He was the chief negotiator for the Justice Department in trying to 
reach an accommodation with the House.

Mr. McNulty seemed like the perfect point person on Capitol Hill for 
Mr. Gonzales. He was the chief counsel for the House majority leader 
when former Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, had the 
job. And Mr. McNulty was chief counsel and spokesman for the 
Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee during the 
impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

But it was Mr. McNulty who appeared to lead the protest at the 
Justice Department, telling House officials that he would quit rather 
than obey an order to return the search material to Mr. Jefferson.

Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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