WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has ended an inglorious tenure, announcing Aug. 27 that he will resign effective Sept. 17.
President George W. Bush accepted the resignation with a show of displeasure, marking the attorney general's discredit down to partisan politics. He named Paul Clement, solicitor general at the Department of Justice, the acting attorney general. Bush is expected to nominate a permanent successor, likely triggering a confirmation struggle with Congress.
By all accounts, notwithstanding the attorney general's many dubious moments in domestic and international affairs, the Gonzales years are apt to be remembered for their devastating impact on morale and performance at the Department of Justice, where crucial resignations and nominee withdrawals have followed the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The firings not only produced evidence of political tampering with the U.S. system, however imperfect, of impartial justice; they also produced clear proof of racial injustice. Thomas Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota and chairman of an internal DoJ committee on Native issues, testified before Congress that five of the eight fired U.S. attorneys had made significant commitments to leadership roles on the committee.
When contrasted with the despairing crime statistics and undoubted need for law enforcement in Indian country, the politicized dismissal of so many leaders in Indian law enforcement confirmed the view among many tribes of a cynical, distant, uncaring and even adversarial administration, surrounded by the worst elements of Washington bureaucracy.
But in an ironic turn, Gonzales spent the weeks and days prior to his resignation on a goodwill tour of Indian country. In the politically contested state of Michigan, the career Republican met with tribes and made a case for the administration's commitment to their law enforcement needs. And on his last full day on the job before his resignation announcement, Gonzales met with the executive board of the National Congress of American Indians.
In a story reprinted in the Washington Examiner, The Associated Press soon reported Heffelfinger's view that Gonzales was better than his subordinates on Indian issues - Heffelfinger found him ''sensitive'' to Indian law enforcement issues over the course of a year's worth of meetings. Heffelfinger was not among the eight fired U.S. attorneys, though the Justice Department considered him overly committed to Indian country. Heffelfinger resigned without knowing of the department's concerns; he works now as an attorney at the Minneapolis firm of Best and Flanagan.
Other conservative voices concentrated on the attorney general's role in security operations that have thwarted terrorist attacks on America following Sept. 11, 2001.
NCAI President Joe Garcia called on Bush to keep the law enforcement needs of Indian country in mind as he considers a nominee to follow Gonzales. ''It is paramount that the leader at the top within the DoJ recognizes Indian country's needs,'' Garcia said in an NCAI news release. ''We look forward to working with the acting attorney general and I am confident they will see the need to pull our issues off the back burner.''
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and chairman of the Senate committee on Indian affairs, had asked for a meeting with Gonzales on law enforcement in Indian country prior to the resignation. Dorgan said the DoJ has gotten back to him, and he anticipates a meeting once the next attorney general gets his feet on the ground in a demanding new post. Dorgan said the resignation was ''the right thing for the country.'' He said he has strong hopes that the crisis in Indian law enforcement will have a prominent place on the agenda of the next U.S. attorney general.