Ignoring calls for his ouster over the firing of several U.S. attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is set to testify before Congress tomorrow. It's a move experts say could rescue his political career, or cost him his job -- even send him to jail.
"It's suicidal," said Stanley Brand, one of the top ethics defense lawyers in Washington, D.C. Given the conflicting stories from Gonzales, his aides and top Justice Department officials about why eight U.S. attorneys were fired, and to what extent Gonzales was involved in the process, the attorney general puts himself in criminal jeopardy by testifying under oath, Brand said.
In his prepared testimony for Tuesday's hearing, Gonzales says he has "nothing to hide" and that he is "committed to assuring Congress and the American public that nothing improper occurred here."
"I've seen it before. People get indicted for false statements and perjury and obstruction of justice," Brand told ABC News. Brand recently represented ex-Interior Department official Stephen Griles, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress in connection with the Jack Abramoff scandal.
What's so dangerous about simply telling the truth? Isn't it true that, like the old adage, the truth shall set you free?
"Not in my world," Brand retorted.
But under oath and before Congress, the truth is what Gonzales should be prepared to tell, according to Alan Baron, a former Democratic counsel who now heads a white-collar defense practice at Holland and Knight. "If he's going to testify, he's got to tell the truth, and if he can't tell the truth, he should avoid testifying."
The attorney general has a difficult needle to thread: He must correct his earlier comments that he had limited knowledge and involvement in the firing process, without making it look as if he had intentionally misled the public. He must give a plausible explanation for both the firings and the muddled response from his department, without appearing incompetent to lead. And he has to do it all under oath.
Some are upbeat about Gonzales' prospects. "He's got his last chance and a great chance," said Gerry Sikorski, a former Democratic congressman who spent a decade on investigative panels and also works at Holland and Knight. Sikorski specializes in working with clients who face heat from Congress -- not unlike Gonzales.
"His biggest danger is losing his job. I don't think he's in danger of perjury," Sikorski told ABC News. Perjuring oneself at a hearing is difficult, he said, because lawmakers must ask their questions repeatedly and in different ways to elicit the same untruthful answer to build a perjury case. With each repeated question, "he'll be able to qualify, condition, caveat his comments," said Sikorski.
Sikorski said the attorney general's message should be that "he made some mistakes in communication and keeping control of the policy, and that he's committed to the principles of fairness and the rule of law."
Attitude is going to be important, he said. "He tends to rely heavily on his smile and his friendliness and cordial manner. It's not going to fly in light of what's transpired on this thing."