House, Senate aides quiz Buchanan on firings

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan yesterday faced six hours of questions from congressional staffers in the ongoing probe into last year's controversial firings of nine other U.S. attorneys from across the country.

Her lawyer, Roscoe C. Howard Jr., said she was "absolutely not involved" in the firings, although she served as director of the U.S. Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys from June 2004 to June 2005, part of the time period under consideration by investigators.

Ms. Buchanan was questioned by Democratic and Republican staffers from both the House and Senate Judiciary committees in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

"I think it's a little premature to go into the actual substance of it," Mr. Howard said after the closed-door meeting.

Ms. Buchanan, who has served as the chief federal prosecutor in Western Pennsylvania since September 2001, declined to talk with reporters, arriving at office of the House Judiciary Committee 45 minutes before the 9 a.m. meeting.

She also used another exit to leave the building around 3 p.m., heading directly to the airport for a flight back to Pittsburgh.

Mr. Howard, himself a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who was retained by Ms. Buchanan, said his client was "even, professional and impressive" during the lengthy interview.

The discussion, he said, focused heavily on the creation of the Justice Department's list of fired attorneys. Since the issue came to light this year, critics have charged that partisan politics dominated the process.

Several high-ranking department officials have left their jobs, including D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Monica Goodling, a former White House liaison.

Mike Elston, a senior Justice Department official who helped carry out the dismissals of prosecutors, said yesterday he is resigning.

Mr. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, is the fifth Justice official to leave after being linked to the dismissals of the prosecutors.

Mr. Elston's resignation is effective at the end of next week. Reached yesterday, he confirmed his plans to leave but declined further comment.

On Monday, Mr. Gonzales was spared a rare "no-confidence" resolution in the Senate when Democrats failed to muster enough votes to bring the issue to the floor for a full debate.

Still, 53 senators, including seven Republicans -- among them Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter -- sided against Mr. Gonzales.

Mr. Sampson, the former Gonzales aide, raised Ms. Buchanan's name to judiciary committee investigators back in April.

He said that Ms. Buchanan was among the DOJ officials he consulted about which of the U.S. attorneys should be asked to resign. After learning that information, the House Judiciary Committee requested an interview with Ms. Buchanan, along with other officials at DOJ.

Then, last month, Ms. Goodling told committee members that she knew Ms. Buchanan had discussed the firings with Mr. Sampson. Ms. Goodling, who originally pleaded the Fifth Amendment to protect against self-incrimination, would not testify until she was granted immunity.

Before she joined the White House, Ms. Goodling was hired by Ms. Buchanan to work in the executive office.

During her testimony, Ms. Goodling said that she improperly considered political affiliation for job candidates for career prosecutor positions within DOJ.

Mr. Howard declined to address Ms. Goodling's testimony. He also said Ms. Buchanan didn't plead the Fifth Amendment during her meeting with congressional investigators.

He said he spent dozens of hours helping his client prepare for the interview, and Ms. Buchanan reviewed many of the public documents that have come out over the last few months. The questions she faced yesterday were detailed, but "she was ready," Mr. Howard said.

Congressional staffers made a transcript, but they likely won't release it publicly in the near future because their investigation is continuing. On Wednesday, both the House and the Senate Judiciary committees issued subpoenas to former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and its former political director, Sara M. Taylor.

A spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee declined to comment on Ms. Buchanan's interview yesterday.

Ms. Buchanan has solid support from at least one powerful congressional Republican. Mr. Specter, the ranking GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, this week said she had "acted properly" throughout the process.

He also called her an important witness.

Mr. Howard said he didn't know what to expect next for his client. One possibility is public testimony before the congressional committees.

"As we have said from the beginning, Ms. Buchanan is ready, willing to cooperate with whomever, wherever, whenever," Mr. Howard said. "And that hasn't changed. So if somebody wants to ask us to come testify, we'll be there."

Considered a stalwart supporter of the Bush administration, Ms. Buchanan has been rewarded with several national posts, including as chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee and her current role as acting director of the national Office on Violence Against Women.

"I think we were all happy this phase is over," Mr. Howard said of the congressional investigation. "It's been a pretty long, hard road for her."


Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 202-488-3479. Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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