Leahy: Justice Dept. has a crisis of leadership unrivaled in its history
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) kicked off this morning's hearing with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales by warning that the Justice Department faces "a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled in its 137 year history," and warned of "Katrina-style cronyism" in the Department's hiring practices.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman warned of politicization in the prosecution of cases and hiring, as well as the lack of experience among leadership, and subsequent "rising crime, abandonment of civil rights and voting rights enforcement."
"The Department of Justice may be losing its way," he said. "The Department of Justice should never be turned into another political arm of the White House, this White House or any White House."
Senator Leahy also sent a message to the White House about participating in the investigation.
"If the White House did nothing wrong, than show us. Show us the documents, provide us with sworn testimony, what was done, why, and by whom. If there's nothing to hide, the White House should stop hiding it," he said.
And he had a final message for the Attorney General.
"He cannot escape accountability for this plan" of firing the 8 Attorneys, Leahy argued.
Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking minority member and former chairman of the committee, saluted Gonzales' accomplishments but then noted a series of contradictions to the Attorney General's initial statement about the level of his involvement in the deliberations on the firing of the US Attorneys.
"This is your opportunity, Mr. Attorney General, to tackle that heavy burden of proof to reestablish your credibility here," the Pennsylvania Senator said.
Specter seemed to be stopping short of suggesting Gonzales' resignation, even if wrong-doing had occurred.
"If some [US Attorneys] were asked to resign improperly, you ought to say so, and even consider reinstatement," he said. "It's pretty hard to unscramble the eggs, but that is a possibility."
Still, Specter emphasized the importance of the today's hearing for Gonzales' future.
"This is as important a hearing as I can recall short of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices," he said. "It is in a sense a reconfirmation hearing."
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), then attempted to lay down a set of guidelines for the hearing's question and answer.
"We need careful responses, not evasions," he said. "If the Attorney General cannot answer a straightforward factual question about recent events, how can be possibly run the department?"
Schumer also said the burden was not on the investigators to find a "smoking gun."
"There is circumstantial evidence that is substantial and growing, and the burden is on the Attorney General" to respond to it, Schumer added.
He also urged Gonzales not to cling to the notion that US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president.
"He shouldn't repeat it like a mantra as some sort of defense against all inquiry," the Senator argued.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) followed Schumer by reminding the committee that US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and have a particular set of responsibilities to prosecute cases within the administration's set of priorities.
"They have to be held to account for performance of those duties," the Alabama Republican said.
Still, Sessions also noted that there had been contradictions.
"It does appear that your statements...incorrectly minimized your involvement in this matter," he said.
He also criticized Gonzales for going ahead with the plan to fire the Attorneys.
"I believe frankly, you should have said no," he said.
In his opening statement, Gonzales took some amount of blame.
"Those 8 Attorneys deserved better," he said, and apologized to them for what he admitted was an "undignified and public spectacle."
But, he then pointed to the information shared by the Justice Department with Congress and his willingness to testify as evidence of his goodwill
"These are not the actions of someone with something to hide," he argued.
He also continued to argue that nothing improper was done.
"Although the process was nowhere near as rigorous as it should been...my decision to ask for resignation of these attorneys was justified, and should stand," he said.
The following video of Leahy's opening statement is from CNN:
More RAW STORY coverage on the Gonzales hearing can be found at the following links:
Gonzales claims he never discussed Fitzgerald's removal
Video: Senator Schumer takes the gloves off
Attorney General: 'This is not about Alberto Gonzales'