May 27, 2006
Top Bush Aide at Justice Dept. Was Set to Quit
By DAVID JOHNSTON and CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON, May 26 Attorney General Alberto R.
Gonzales 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
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 discussion of resignations
at the Justice Department.
The White House said Mr. Bush devised the 45-day plan
as a way to cool tempers in Congress and the Justice
"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 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,
which could lead to a broader inquiry.
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
"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 have no set guidelines
for how such a search should be done, what notice was
required and how law enforcement and House authorities
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
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
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
At the same time, law enforcement officials said the
deal did not mean that Jefferson investigation would
stop until the disagreement about the evidence is
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
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
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 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 over to Mr. Jefferson.
Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting for this article.