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US Attorney General Under Fire Over Sacked Prosecutors


A political firestorm has erupted between Congress and the Bush administration over the firing of federal prosecutors late last year. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged Tuesday that mistakes were made, but is resisting demands from some Democrats that he resign. More now from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone in Washington.

At issue is the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year by the Justice Department.

U.S. attorneys are federal prosecutors responsible for enforcing the law in dozens of geographic districts around the country.

The attorneys are appointed to four-year terms by the president, usually on the recommendation of local political leaders, and can be replaced at any time.

Democrats in Congress believe the firings of the prosecutors were politically motivated and are demanding hearings to look into the controversy.

On Tuesday, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York renewed a demand that Attorney General Gonzales resign over the matter.

"The latest revelations prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there has been unprecedented breach of trust, abuse of power and misuse of the Justice Department," he said. "And that is very serious and very important. The U.S. attorneys are in their own districts the lead enforcer of the rule of law, without fear or favor."

But Gonzales gave every indication that he is staying on at a Justice Department news conference.

The attorney general defended the firing of the eight prosecutors last year as the right decision but expressed regret that Congress was not told sooner about White House involvement in the process.

"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here," he said. "I accept responsibility and my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur in the future."

Gonzales said he blocked a proposal from former White House counsel Harriet Miers to fire all 93 U.S. attorneys shortly after President Bush won re-election in 2004.

Gonzales accepted the resignation of his top aide, Kyle Sampson, who had failed to brief other Justice Department officials about his discussions on the prosecutors with former White House counsel Miers.

The Justice Department instead decided to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year for what were described as performance reasons, but Gonzales said he was not involved in any of the discussions related to replacing the prosecutors.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters traveling with President Bush in Mexico that Mr. Bush continues to have confidence in Attorney General Gonzales.

"He is a stand up guy," he said. "He is a person who comes to the job every day doing the best he can to serve the United States of America."

The firings have provoked an angry reaction from key Democrats in Congress, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"Frankly, I find it frustrating and it makes me quite angry and there will be hearings," he said.

Some Republicans are expressing concern about the issue as well. Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, told the Associated Press that Gonzales and the Justice Department will have to explain the dismissals or they will lose the confidence of Congress.

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a friend of the attorney general and normally one of the administration's strongest defenders in the Senate, is also looking for answers.

"I have known the attorney general for a long time, as a personal matter, and I am concerned," he said. "But I know the person and so I am willing to give him an opportunity to come forward and explain himself. I will have to agree with Senator Leahy that appearances are troubling."

Some of the prosecutors fired have said that they felt pressured by Republican lawmakers to speed up investigations of voter fraud allegations involving Democrats prior to last year's congressional midterm elections.