As our collective interest has shifted from the incompetence of the former attorney general to the independence of the next one, it's easy to forget that Alberto Gonzales may be in heaps of legal trouble. Virtually every public explanation of his surprising and abrupt resignation this summer was a benign one. Everyone (including we at Slate) was focused on the political justifications for Gonzales' resignation, rather than the legal ones. We speculated that Josh Bolten forced Gonzales out, that he finally wearied of being the nation's scratching post, that he had to leave when Karl Rove did. None of those explanations really made sufficient sense—especially for a man who had just vowed to stay on to the end, and recently finalized his fall schedule. There was no reason for Gonzales to leave when he did—he'd likely gotten away with turning the whole Justice Department into the president's personal playground, then covering it all up with half-truths. But maybe he didn't get away with it after all, and that's the real explanation for his departure.
John McKay, one of the U.S. attorneys allegedly fired for improper political reasons, suggested just this in a speech last week before the Federal Bar Association. McKay claimed that Gonzales may be facing criminal prosecution, and soon. Describing an eight-hour meeting he had last June with investigators from the DoJ's Office of the Inspector General, which may file its report to Congress before Thanksgiving, McKay predicted that the investigators will recommend criminal prosecution of Gonzales for lying under oath.
Certainly, this might represent wishful thinking on the part of a former, shunted-aside Washington prosecutor. But more likely, McKay has connected the dots between Gonzales' hasty departure, his recent decision to retain a high-powered criminal-defense attorney, reports that Gonzales is apparently now refusing to answer questions from the IG, Glenn Fine, as well as the imminence of the IG report. "When it lands," said McKay, "it is going to be an extremely negative report on President Bush's Justice Department." John McKay has no reason to make recklessly inaccurate predictions. Glenn Fine is well-known as nonpartisan and diligent. Maybe he's about to put into words what everybody already knows.
What would Gonzales be on the hook for? The scope of his legal troubles has expanded with the scope of the IG's probe. When Fine began his internal investigation, he was just looking at the propriety of the mass dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys last winter. The office is now investigating charges ranging from improper hiring practices at Justice to the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, the rampant abuse of national security letters, and Gonzales' alleged efforts to influence Monica Goodling's Senate testimony. Fine's office does not have the authority to bring criminal charges. He can only refer his findings to criminal prosecutors or recommend the appointment of a special prosecutor to follow up.