U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took the proper course to resign, former U.S. Attorney of Arizona Paul Charlton said Monday.
Charlton was one of eight prosecutors across the country whom Democrats contend Gonzales or his subordinates removed for political reasons. Charlton announced his resignation under pressure in December 2006, after more than five years in the position.
The prosecutors’ purge was just one of several controversies that surrounded Gonzales.
Charlton said, “It’s going to be a better place for Department of Justice employees, because they now don’t have to worry about the next article or the next news cycle. They can instead focus on their jobs.”
Charlton declined to say whether he felt the attorney general deserves the often sharp criticism he has endured from members of Congress who have questioned his honesty and competence.
“It’s affected me in a very personal way and I obviously have my opinions about the attorney general, but I think it’s better for me to keep them to myself,” Charlton said.
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Gonzales should be commended for his service and that his resignation provides an opportunity for lawmakers to discontinue partisan bickering.
“The president can start the process by nominating a quality non-political person to serve; and the U.S. Senate can reciprocate by using the confirmation process not to settle old scores or politicize the nomination, but to fairly examine the qualifications of the nominee,” he said.
Kyl serves as member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first stop in the nomination process for Gonzales’ successor.
The resignation of the highest-ranking Hispanic to serve in the federal government underscores equal opportunity, said Phil Austin, president of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.
“The notion of equal opportunity is that people have the opportunity to perform and if they don’t perform, by whatever measure, they are subject to the ramifications that everyone else is,” Austin said.
“Just because somebody is an ethnic minority, they shouldn’t be subject to any less scrutiny for their work, so using that level playing field, some of the minorities are going to fall out just as some of the Anglos and non-minorities fall out under that inspection,” he said.
President Bush should be commended for appointing Gonzales and other minorities to Cabinet positions, Austin said.
Charlton pointed out that with Gonzales’ resignation, every Department of Justice official involved with the removal of the eight prosecutors has since resigned from office.
Despite months of controversy and open testimony about the topic, Charlton said he is unsure why he was asked to resign, and whether a Department of Justice investigation into U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi figured into the decision.
Until January, Charlton thought high-ups sought his removal based on his decisions not to seek the death penalty in a murder case and for his objections to the FBI’s refusal to tape-record confessions in child sex abuse case, he said.
However, Charlton has grown less certain since Gonzalez and other Department of Justice officials testified under oath to Congress and the government has released public documents related to the matter.
“As I’ve looked at the e-mails and as I’ve listened to the testimony and as I’ve sat through interviews from the inspector general, today I don’t know what the genuine reason was. What I know now is that we’ll have to wait until the conclusion of the investigation before we all truly know what happened here,” Charlton said.
The potential death-penalty case involved a methamphetamine dealer who was accused of killing his supplier and leaving her body in a garbage dump. The case was built largely on the testimony of cooperating witness, but prosecutors never located the body, because Department of Justice officials declined to pay for the exhumation.
“That’s not an appropriate case for the death penalty and I felt that it was my responsibility to say so,” Charlton said.
The FBI matter was separate.
FBI agents generally do not tape interviews with witnesses and suspects. But agents are permitted, and in some circumstances encouraged, to record such conversations with prior approval, said FBI special agent Deborah McCarley, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Phoenix Bureau.
Charlton said, “In child sex abuse cases, as you know, it’s the words of the accused molester that sometimes are the only evidence that you can to prove and support a child molest case. The FBI still has a policy in this state that discourages their agents from taping those confessions.”
Gonzales certainly was aware that Renzi, an incumbent Arizona Republican, was targeted in an investigation into possible corruption, Charlton said.
He declined to say what pressure – if any – was applied by higher-ups concerning the investigation, nor other details about the matter.
“I can’t talk about the Renzi case at all, because this is a public matter, but the investigation is on-going,” said Charlton, who has since gone into private practice in Phoenix.
“There will come a time when I suspect I will be able to talk about it and the investigation will be an open record and everyone can talk about it, but right now, we’re just not at that point,” he said.
Renzi has withdrawn from all of his House committee assignments and last week he announced that he does not plan to seek re-election in 2008.