Washington (CBS/AP) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that mistakes were made and accepted responsibility Tuesday for the way eight federal prosecutors were fired.
At a news conference Tuesday, Gonzales said he would find out what went wrong but said he would not resign. "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility," Gonzales said amid growing calls for his own termination.
However, Gonzales said he was not fully aware of the actual discussions between the White House and his department regarding the firings, saying the task of evaluating U.S. attorneys' performance fell to his former top aide, Kyle Sampson, who resigned Tuesday.
"There are going to be decisions made that I am not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated," Gonzales said.
The attorney general added of the firings, "I stand by the decision and I think it was the right decision."
Authorities said Sampson failed to brief other senior Justice Department officials of his discussions about the firings with then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. Miers resigned in January and moved to Dallas.
E-mail correspondence between Sampson and Miers, made available at midday Tuesday in Washington, indicate they began two years ago to consider individual U.S. attorneys for possible dismissal. As the list took shape, their correspondence indicated possible political backlash from the attorneys and their congressional allies.
Because Gonzales has no e-mail account at the Department of Justice, there will be no paper trail with his name on it, CBS News correspondent Stephanie Lambidakis reported.
In one important e-mail exchanged between Sampson and then-White House counsel Harriet Miers last September was a chart dividing all 93 U.S. attorneys into three categories: "good performers," which were printed in bold; "not good performers," which had a strike through there name; and neutral names, which were listed without any comments, a Justice official told Lambidakis.
In a Sept 13, 2006, e-mail to Miers, Sampson listed one prosecutor, Bud Cummins in Little Rock,Ark., "in the process of being pushed out." Five other prosecutors — in Arizona, Nevada, Grand Rapids, Mich., San Diego and Seattle — were listed as U.S attorneys "we should now consider pushing out."
Four days later, Miers responded: "Kyle, thanks for this. I have not forgotten I need to follow up on the info but things have been crazy."
But nearly three months later, the Justice Department was still waiting for White House approval for the firings. "Still waiting for green light from White House," Sampson wrote in a Dec. 2, 2006, e-mail to Michael Elston, the top aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
The White House responded shortly thereafter.
"We're a go for the US Atty plan," deputy White House counsel William K. Kelley wrote in a Dec. 4, 2006, e-mail to Sampson and Miers. "WH leg, political, communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes."
The term "WH leg" refers to the White House office of legislative affairs, which deals with Congress. Copies of dozens of Sampson's e-mails to various White House and Justice Department aides were released Tuesday by congressional judiciary oversight panels.
"The attorney general failed the department," Cummins, the former Arkansas federal prosecutor, told CBS News.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who is leading a Senate investigation of the firings, called for the second time in three days for Gonzales to step down.
"Today's staff resignation does not take the heat off the attorney general, in fact it raises the temperature," Schumer said at a news conference Tuesday. "Kyle Sampson," who Schumer suggested may have obstructed justice, "will not become the next Scooter Libby, the next fall guy."
Additionally, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said Gonzales "ought to be shown the door — he ought not to be in this administration. We have got to end corruption in our government. It is not OK to be corrupt."
The government's 93 U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees who can be hired and fired at will. But critics say the fate of the eight who were dismissed last year appeared to have been politically motivated. And Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike said they were outraged that Justice Department officials weren't forthcoming on how the firings unfolded — even when asked, under oath, by Congress.
A Justice Department official said Tuesday that Miers, in a February 2005 discussion with Sampson, suggested firing all of the U.S. attorneys. White House spokesman Tony Snow described the idea as a move to get fresh faces in the 4-year term jobs, and said that it was not a firm recommendation by Miers.
The e-mails show that Sampson rejected the idea to fire all of the prosecutors but spent the next year drawing up a list of potential dismissals. On Jan. 9, 2006, Sampson sent Miers a memo listing what the official described as roughly 10 names of prosecutors who were viewed as underperforming in their jobs.
By September, Sampson began moving forward with the firings, the Justice official said. The White House did not ask for names to be added or removed from that list, the official said. Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty signed off on the list around that time, the official said.
Gonzales was aware of the discussions with the White House, but McNulty and other senior department officials were not, the official said.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, called the Justice Department's management dysfunctional for sending Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Will Moschella to testify before the panel last week "without knowing all the facts."
"They're going to have to come up with some answers," Sensenbrenner said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. "If they don't, they're going to lose everyone's confidence."
"What I'd like to hear is the truth," he said, complaining about the Justice Department's different explanations for the dismissals. If that record is not corrected, Sensenbrenner said, "then the Justice Department and the attorney general himself are going to die by a thousand cuts."
President Bush made "no recommendations on specific individuals," Snow said. "We don't have anything to indicate the president made any calls on specific us attorneys."
On Monday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged that complaints about the job performance of prosecutors occasionally came to the White House and were passed on to the Justice Department, perhaps including some informally from Mr. Bush to Gonzales.
Some of the prosecutors who were fired have said they felt pressured by powerful Republicans in their home states to rush investigations of potential voter fraud involving Democrats.
Perino said deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, vaguely recalls telling Miers that he also thought firing all 93 was ill-advised.
Dating back to mid-2004, the White House's legislative affairs, political affairs and chief of staff's office had received complaints from a variety of sources about the lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases in various locations, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee and New Mexico, she said
Those complaints were passed on to the Justice Department or Mires' office.
"The president recalls hearing complaints about election fraud not being vigorously prosecuted and believes he may have informally mentioned it to the attorney general during a brief discussion on other Department of Justice matters," Perino said, adding that the conversation would have taken place in October 2006.
"At no time did any White House officials, including the president, direct the Department of Justice to take specific action against any individual U.S. attorney," Perino said.
Congressional Democrats have also singled out Rove for questioning about the firings of the eight prosecutors and whether the dismissals were politically motivated.
Those demands to question Rove signaled anew Democrats' shifting focus beyond the Justice Department and toward the White House in the inquiry.
Last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said he would seek to interview Miers and deputy counsel William Kelly for insight on their roles, if any, in the firings.
"As a result, we would want to ensure that Karl Rove was one of the White House staff that we interview in connection with our investigation," said Conyers.
The White House has said previously that Rove wasn't involved in the firings, but did alert Miers to complaints about Iglesias. It was not immediately clear whether Rove also told Gonzales about the complaints.
Last week, Rove called the two-month controversy "a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it."
Copyright 2007 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
To comment, the following rules must be followed:
Comments may be monitored for inappropriate content, but the station is under no legal obligation to do so.
If you believe a comment violates the above rules, please use the Flagging Tool to alert a Moderator.
Flagging does not guarantee removal.
Multiple violations may result in account suspension.
Decisions to suspend or unsuspend accounts are made by Station Moderators.
Links require admin approval before posting.
Questions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please provide detailed information.