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Four on the floor

Justice | Another top Justice Department official resigns-yet Alberto Gonzales remains

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

The irony seemed lost on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. His new crime-prevention program, "Don't Lie for the Other Guy," launched the day after yet another Justice Department official stepped down amid the controversy over last year's botched mass firing of U.S. attorneys, for which Gonzales is ultimately responsible. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, the department's No. 2 man, became the fourth-and highest-ranking-official to go in the simmering controversy when he submitted his letter of resignation May 14.

Gonzales remains resolute that he will not resign unless asked by President George W. Bush, who has expressed only support for his embattled appointee. Bush has likewise protected his executive aides, vowing to resist subpoenas for testimony about White House involvement in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. The administration's wagon circling has stopped short of departed officials Kyle Sampson, Monica Goodling, Michael Battle, and now McNulty.

In a prepared statement, Gonzales initially praised McNulty as "an outstanding public servant and a fine attorney." But pressed by reporters the following day, the attorney general shifted responsibility for last year's firings onto McNulty. "At the end of the day, the decisions reflected the views of the deputy attorney general," Gonzales said. "He signed off on the names."

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Democratic lawmakers accused Gonzales of trying to dump his gaffes on a scapegoat. At a Senate hearing on the firings, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "The attorney general is trying to make Mr. McNulty into the next Scooter Libby, but we all know the buck stops with the attorney general." Schumer added that McNulty deserves credit for his candor in congressional testimony, whereas Gonzales stonewalled the Senate Judiciary Committee with repeated claims that he could not recall crucial details.

It was McNulty's candor before Congress in February that initially revealed cracks in the Justice Department's party line. He testified that U.S. attorney Bud Cummins was fired to make room for a friend of Karl Rove. The next day, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote in an email that Gonzales was "extremely upset" and that he "thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate." Gonzales maintains that Cummins and the other attorneys were dismissed for poor performance.

McNulty further clouded the waters when he testified that the firings were solely the decision of the Justice Department with no White House involvement, a statement exposing departmental communication failures that left the deputy attorney general outside the loop. When McNulty later learned that Sampson had discussed the firings with White House aides dating to at least January 2005, he was furious and called Sen. Schumer to correct his testimony.

Many Democrats believe such inconsistencies betray efforts to cover up some deeper scandal. Most Republicans view the mess as less sinister, but the severe mishandling has prompted some, like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), to join Democrats in calling for Gonzales to step down. Coburn spokesman John Hart told WORLD that McNulty's departure changes nothing: "He still believes Gonzales should resign."

McNulty made no effort to absolve Gonzales of responsibility in his letter of resignation, not mentioning the department's imbroglio and citing only personal reasons for his decision: "The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career." Two of McNulty's four children attend Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. He serves as an elder at New Hope Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fairfax, Va.

McNulty spent eight years working at the Justice Department, the last 18 months as deputy attorney general, a post he will continue to fill until a replacement is located. He was appointed a U.S. attorney in 2001, three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and conducted the successful prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who admitted conspiring with the terrorist hijackers.

As the No. 2 man in the Justice Department, McNulty led crackdowns on shady military contracts and issued the famed "McNulty Memo," which restored attorney-client privilege to corporations seeking legal counsel to root out white-collar crime. The loss of such a star raises questions as to whether the Justice Department can remain effective with Gonzales at the helm.

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