WASHINGTON - Top White House political aide Karl Rove helped prepare a high-ranking Justice Department official for testimony about the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys, congressional investigators have been told.
William Moschella, associate deputy attorney general, told the investigators that Rove was among a group of White House and Justice aides who weighed in at a March meeting about testimony Moschella was to give the next day to a House panel.
The disclosure that Rove was among those at the meeting was detailed by a person who is familiar with the probe into the firings but requested anonymity because transcripts of Moschella's comments to congressional investigators have not been officially released.
Administration officials decided at the preparatory session with Moschella that he should offer specifics about why five of the fired prosecutors were targeted for dismissal. The highly unusual decision to publicly discuss the personnel decisions fueled the furor over the firings, which Democrats have alleged were inappropriately motivated by politics.
The March 5 meeting, which was held at the White House, has been mentioned in e-mails that the Justice Department turned over to congressional investigators. Moschella's testimony about Rove's attendance was first reported Friday by Newsweek magazine on the MSNBC website.
On March 6, Moschella testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee that the White House had little involvement in the dismissals - a claim that was later undermined in department e-mails showing that Justice officials frequently consulted about the personnel moves with White House aides.
On Friday, Democrats said the prep meeting for Moschella that Rove attended was further proof that, contrary to early Justice Department statements about the firings, the White House was deeply involved in the process.
White House officials sought to discount the significance of the meeting, saying that Rove played a limited role.
Dana Perino, deputy White House press secretary, said Friday that the meeting was called to encourage Justice officials to be forthright about the firings with members of Congress in the hope of defusing controversy.
"It is not at all unusual, nor is it inappropriate, for people at the White House to meet with members of the administration before they are going up to testify in front of Congress," Perino told reporters. "We were asking the Justice Department to be fully responsive to the Congress so that we could help get them the answers that they need."
According to the person familiar with the ongoing congressional probe, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty has also told investigators that he was at the March 5 White House meeting and that Rove was there. Neither Moschella nor McNulty recalled in the interviews what Rove said.
A Justice Department official, who briefed reporters Friday about the preparatory session, said Rove "came late and left early."
Congressional committees investigating the firings are seeking to question Rove about his role in the dismissals. He is known to have lobbied for the appointment of a former aide to succeed the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark., one of the eight dismissed last year.
The White House has offered congressional lawyers the opportunity to question Rove and other top aides informally behind closed doors. But lawmakers are insisting that they testify publicly and under oath.
Questions about whether Rove had a hand in the firings have figured in a separate probe, being conducted by the Office of Special Counsel, into whether he and other administration personnel violated civil statutes by focusing on electoral politics at Cabinet agency meetings and discussed some of the activities in private e-mails that are missing.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times