US Attorney General Michael Mukasey named a prosecutor on Monday to investigate whether former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, other officials of the administration of US President George W. Bush or Republicans in Congress should face criminal charges in the firings of nine US attorneys.
The launching of a criminal inquiry follows the recommendation of internal Justice Department investigators who concluded that, despite denials of the administration, political considerations played a part in the firings of as many as four of the federal prosecutors.
In their report, investigators said the lack of cooperation by senior officials at the White House and in the Justice Department left gaps in their findings that should be investigated further.
“Serious allegations involving potential criminal conduct have not been fully investigated or resolved,” the report said, listing lying to investigators, obstruction of justice and wire fraud among the potential felony crimes.
Mukasey’s appointment of Nora Dannehy, the acting US attorney in Connecticut, to continue the inquiry leaves open the possibility that it won’t be finished before Bush leaves office in January.
Senators of both parties who led a congressional probe of the firings praised Mukasey’s decision and cautioned Bush against pardoning anyone as he leaves the White House.
“The American people will see any misuse of the pardon power or any grant of clemency or immunity to those from his administration involved in the U.S. attorney firing scandal as an admission of wrongdoing,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat.
The report unsparingly criticized Bush administration officials, Republican members of Congress and their aides for the ousters, which touched off a scandal that stripped the Justice Department of its leadership and sparked a historic showdown in court.
The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility Director Marshall Jarrett described Gonzales and his deputy, Paul McNulty, as “remarkably disengaged” from the process that led to the dismissal of the prosecutors.
Monday’s report was the latest to criticize Gonzales’ management of the Justice Department during his 31 months as attorney general.
Gonzales quit under fire in September last year.
In a statement, Gonzales said: “My family and I are glad to have the investigation of my conduct in this matter behind us and we look forward to moving on to new challenges.”
Gonzales’ attorney, George Terwilliger, noted that the report found no unlawful conduct.
“It seems rather odd,” Terwilliger said, “that rather than bring the investigation to a close, the department would escalate the matter to the attention of a prosecutor.”
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