WASHINGTON -- Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he was not involved in any discussions about the impending dismissals of U.S. attorneys.
On Friday night, however, the Justice Department revealed Gonzales' participation in a Nov. 27 meeting where such plans were discussed.
The firings of eight prosecutors has since led to a political firestorm and calls for his ouster.
At that meeting, the attorney general and at least five top Justice Department officials discussed a five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors, Gonzales' aides said late Friday.
There, Gonzales signed off on the plan, which was drafted by his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Sampson resigned last week.
Another Justice aide closely involved in the dismissals, White House liaison Monica Goodling, has also taken a leave of absence, two officials said.
The five-step plan approved by Gonzales involved notifying Republican home-state senators of the impending dismissals, preparing for potential political upheaval, naming replacements and submitting them to the Senate for confirmation.
Six of the eight prosecutors who were ultimately ordered to resign are named in the plan.
The department released more than 280 documents Friday night, including e-mails, calendar pages and memos to try to satisfy Congress' demands for details on how the firings were handled - and whether they were politically motivated. There are no other meetings on the calendar pages released between that Nov. 27 and Dec. 7, when the attorneys were fired, to indicate Gonzales participated in other discussions on the matter, Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.
Scolinos said it was not immediately clear whether Gonzales gave his final approval to begin the firings at that meeting. Scolinos also said Gonzales was not involved in the process of selecting which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
On March 13, in explaining the firings, Gonzales told reporters he was aware that some of the dismissals were being discussed but was not involved in them.
"I knew my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers - where were the districts around the country where we could do better for the people in that district, and that's what I knew," Gonzales said last week. "But that is in essence what I knew about the process; was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
Later, he added: "I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department, obviously there are going to be decisions that I'm not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated."
The documents were released Friday night, a few hours after Sampson agreed to testify at a Senate inquiry next week into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Asked to explain the difference between Gonzales' comments and his schedule, Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the attorney general had relied on Sampson to draw up the plans on the firings.
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"The attorney general has made clear that he charged Mr. Sampson with directing a plan to replace U.S. attorneys where for one reason or another the department believed that we could do better," Roehrkasse said. "He was not, however, involved at the levels of selecting the particular U.S. attorneys who would be replaced."
Gonzales this week directed the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate the circumstances of the firings, officials said. The department's inspector general also will participate in that investigation.
Nonetheless Democrats pounced late Friday.
"Clearly the attorney general was not telling the whole truth, but what is he trying to hide?" said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"If the facts bear out that Attorney General Gonzales knew much more about the plan than he has previously admitted, then he can no longer serve as attorney general," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is heading the Senate's investigation into the firings.
Added House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers:
"This puts the attorney general front and center in these matters, contrary to information that had previously been provided to the public and Congress."
Presidential spokesman Trey Bohn referred questions to the Justice Department, saying White House officials had not seen the documents.
The developments were not what Republicans, skittish about new revelations, had hoped.
Earlier Friday, a staunch White House ally, Sen. John Cornyn, summoned White House counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill and told him he wanted "no surprises."
"I told him, 'Everything you can release, please release. We need to know what the facts are,'" Cornyn said.
Sampson will appear Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his attorney said. "We trust that his decision to do so will satisfy the need of the Congress to obtain information from him concerning the requested resignations of the United States attorneys," Sampson attorney Brad Berenson wrote in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees the Justice Department.
New e-mails released Friday indicate that some of Gonzales' most trusted advisers were kept out of the loop in the firings. Scolinos apparently learned about the plans to dismiss attorneys on Nov. 17, 2006 - nearly two years after Sampson and the White House first began talking about replacing prosecutors.
Democrats question whether the eight were selected because they were not seen as, in Sampson's words, "loyal Bushies."
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Associated Press.