Lonely attorney general finds an ally at Cassidy

Despite lack of support from Republicans on Capitol Hill for embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, one K Street lobbyist has come to his defense in the controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Juan Carlos Benitez, a senior vice president at lobbying giant Cassidy & Associates, circulated letters of support from Latino and Hispanic groups and police organizations to reporters last week. Some of the groups had already written letters of support for Gonzales, which the Department of Justice’s (DoJ) public-affairs office previously sent to a select group of reporters and editorial boards. Benitez added letters from other Hispanic and Latino groups in his e-mails.

Benitez’s effort to prop up Gonzales included letters from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, the Texas Association of Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce and the Latino Coalition.

DoJ spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said she was unaware that Benitez was circulating the letters and that Justice had not hired him to do so.

“Obviously, if people in town want to be helpful to the attorney general, we’re thankful for it,” Scolinos said.
Benitez did not return e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.

Benitez worked alongside Gonzales as a special counsel at the Department of Justice dealing with immigration-related unfair employment practices. He also served as the White House liaison for the Hispanic National Bar Association. His close ties with the Bush administration have made him a key anchor in Cassidy’s lobbying operation.

Benitez strongly supported Gonzales when the president nominated him to be attorney general. When Gonzales’s name was circulated as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Benitez was mentioned as the person who could help lead him through the confirmation process, a role former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) played for now-Chief Justice John Roberts.

Benitez also serves on the board of the Latino Coalition, which in its letter pledged “continued and unwavering” support for Gonzales as attorney general.

The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was more cautious, last week encouraging Congress to obtain and fairly review all the facts before passing judgment on Gonzales.

News reports last weekend cast doubt on whether Gonzales has been forthcoming about his role in the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. An e-mail lists Gonzales as attending an hour-long meeting about them on Nov. 27, apparently contradicting his previous statements that he delegated the duty of organizing and executing the firing plan to his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.

“I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on,” Gonzales told reporters March 13.   

Sampson agreed Friday afternoon to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this Thursday. Several GOP senators, including Arlen Specter (Pa.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), expressed reservations over the weekend about Gonzales’s ability to lead. The president, however, has repeatedly expressed confidence in Gonzales, and the White House has said it hopes the attorney general will stay on throughout Bush’s second term. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has come out in support of Gonzales, saying there is no clear evidence that Gonzales lied about his involvement in the attorneys matter.

Michael Barrera, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said weekend news reports have not changed his organization’s position. “We continue to want to wait until all the facts come out,” he said. “We want to be sure that fairness and process applies to the attorney general himself.”

The e-mail showing that Gonzales attended a meeting about the U.S. attorneys’ firings is not enough to call for his resignation, Barrera said, because it does not provide enough context.

Barrera said last Wednesday he attended the National Hispanic Leadership Institute summit in Washington, D.C., where Gonzales received a standing ovation.

“Obviously, there’s more to know,” said James Pasco Jr., the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “But he hasn’t had the opportunity to give his side of it.”

Pasco added that the negotiations over the terms of Gonzales’s and other administrations officials’ testimony before
Congress has been like “watching a primetime Kabuki dance.”