WASHINGTON - A key aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than answer lawmakers' questions about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, her lawyer said Monday.
The decision by Monica Goodling to protect herself against self-incrimination marks the first instance in which a Bush administration appointee involved in the probe has signaled concerns about possible criminal repercussions.
Goodling, 33, has taken leave from her job as counsel to the attorney general and as the Justice Department's liaison to the White House.
Meanwhile, Gonzales went on national television Monday seeking to deflect criticism three days after a new release of e-mails showed that he had more involvement in the firings than he initially suggested.
"Nothing improper happened here," he said in an interview on NBC. "I've got nothing to hide in terms of what I've done. And we now want to reassure the American public that nothing improper happened here.
"Someday, when I leave this office," he said, "I am confident that I will leave with my integrity."
In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Goodling's lawyer, John M. Dowd, said that "the potential for legal jeopardy for Ms. Goodling from even her most truthful and accurate testimony under these circumstances is very real."
Leahy responded: "The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath."
The panel's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, couldn't be reached for comment.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, called Goodling's decision "disturbing" and said it "reinforces individuals' worst thoughts about what may have been going on at the Justice Department."
At the same time, Putnam predicted that "almost any mid-level staffer who's hauled up here to testify in this kind of climate would be advised by their attorneys to protect themselves" from criminal charges.
Goodling's announcement came as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to call Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, to testify later this week. Sampson's testimony on Thursday could be pivotal as lawmakers seek answers to the depth of Gonzales' and the White House's involvement and the reasons behind the personnel changes.
Sampson's attorney, Brad Berenson, said Monday that his client doesn't plan to invoke the Fifth Amendment or seek immunity. "Hearings in a highly politicized environment like this can sometimes become a game of gotcha, but Kyle has decided to trust the Congress and the process," Berenson said.
Lawmakers also want White House officials, including President Bush's political adviser Karl Rove, to testify. The White House has resisted so far, agreeing only to let officials answer limited questions privately with no transcript.
Also on Monday, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a letter to Leahy and Specter that he'd faced internal resistance in his decision to investigate the firings.
Inspector General Glenn Fine said Gonzales initially asked the Office of Professional Responsibility to conduct the investigation. When Fine told the OPR that he believed his office should conduct the investigation, OPR officials disagreed and asserted jurisdiction.
Chuck Rosenberg, interim chief of staff to Gonzales, had to intervene by asking both entities to jointly investigate.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino reaffirmed Bush's support for Gonzales on Monday, but tried to distance the White House from the controversial firings.
While U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, Democrats have accused the administration of retaliating against its independent prosecutors and possibly trying to interfere with corruption and voter fraud cases. The administration has denied any impropriety.
Justice Department e-mails collected by congressional investigators show that Goodling was involved in planning the dismissals and in efforts to limit the negative reaction. As liaison to the White House, she could shed light on the extent of White House involvement in the dismissals.
Other e-mails indicate that Goodling helped Gonzales and other top Justice Department officials prepare for congressional hearings into the firings. In February, she prepared a chart with information on the ousted prosecutors and their replacements.
Goodling took a leading role in making sure that Tim Griffin, a Rove protege, replaced H.E. "Bud" Cummins as the U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Documents released to Congress include communications between Goodling and Rove deputy Scott Jennings.
At Jennings' request, Goodling agreed to meet last summer with two Republican activists from New Mexico who felt that U.S. Attorney David Iglesias wasn't doing enough to pursue allegations of voter fraud by Democrats. Iglesias believes the issue was a key factor in his firing.
In his NBC interview, Gonzales sought to clarify his involvement in the firings.
Gonzales said he'd meant to say that he wasn't involved in the "deliberations over whether or not United States attorneys should resign."
Gonzales said he asked Sampson to coordinate a department review of the performance of the U.S. attorneys. He said he recalled Sampson mentioning that the White House had asked about the status of the underperformers.
"From time to time, Mr. Sampson would tell me something that would confirm in my mind that that process was ongoing," he said
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.