WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales confirmed Thursday that former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton was fired after policy clashes that the Justice Department considered “poor judgment.”
Democrats in Arizona have suggested Charlton was fired on Dec. 7 because his office had opened investigations before the 2006 election into a land deal by Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., and a camping trip retired Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., took with two former pages.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales repeated what his deputies have said in the past: They objected to Charlton’s handling of a death penalty case.
Senators are investigating why Gonzales fired Charlton and seven other U.S. attorneys last year. They demanded answers from Gonzales on Thursday.
The death penalty conflict involved a case in which a methamphetamine buyer had been accused of killing his female supplier and having his cohorts bury her body in a landfill, said an attorney familiar with the case. The lawyer asked not to be named because the case is still pending.
The Justice Department had decided last May that Charlton should pursue the death penalty. But Charlton disagreed because there was no forensic evidence directly linking the defendant to the victim, the lawyer said.
According to the attorney, Charlton had asked for money to exhume the body but was turned down. The lawyer said Charlton believed it would be inappropriate to pursue the death penalty without the body.
Charlton appealed to the deputy attorney general and Gonzales to reconsider. The lawyer said Charlton had asked to meet with former Attorney General John Ashcroft in a similar case and had been able to change Ashcroft’s mind.
But Gonzales’ office denied Charlton’s request.
“We have a process in place to carefully evaluate death penalty decisions of the department around the nation,” Gonzales testified Thursday. “I’d already made a decision on this particular case.”
Gonzales’ job is on the line over his handling of the firings.
Senators grew increasingly frustrated Thursday as they asked Gonzales to explain the firings. They pressed him to clarify why his descriptions of his role in the decision have seemed inconsistent over the past several months.
“I think it’s clear to me that some of these people just had personality conflicts with people in your office or at the White House and, you know, we made up reasons to fire them,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Asked to explain Charlton’s firing, Gonzales said he has delved into the record since Dec. 7, and found Charlton had disagreed with the department on other issues. Charlton also resisted the department’s policy against using taped confessions, Gonzales said.
Charlton has said he wanted to tape suspects, particularly in sexual abuse cases where evidence is difficult to gather.
Gonzales said the department objected when Charlton decided on his own – despite the FBI’s objection – to record interviews in Arizona.
“In hindsight, there may be good reasons to pursue such a policy,” Gonzales said. “But to implement it unilaterally on his own, in my judgment, was poor judgment.”