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Attorney General nearly resigned over Jefferson evidence

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/27/washington/27inquire.html?ei=5094&en=bdb72883b813538b&hp=&ex=1148702400&partner=homepage&pagewanted=print May 27, 2006 Top
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26, 2006
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/27/washington/27inquire.html?ei=5094&en=bdb72883b813538b&hp=&ex=1148702400&partner=homepage&pagewanted=print

      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
      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 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
      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 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
      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 have 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 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
      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 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.
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