Who IS Alberto Gonzales?

Adam Lambert
Original Publication Date

[Update: (New York Times) In a private meeting on Capital Hill, Alberto Gonzales said the Justice Department would not block attempts to change the current rules on replacing US Attorneys.]

Admittedly, there is much information publicly available regarding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his rise to White House Counsel and then to his current position of Attorney General. His impact on the direction of the country over the past six years is immense.

His documents -- his advice and his counsel -- have been considered by some to lay the foundation for torture, suspension of habeas corpus, warrantless wiretapping, the expansion of power in the Executive Branch and, most recently, what at least appears to be the politically motivated replacement of many U.S. Attorneys with Administration loyalists, in order to pad their resumes, as William Mercer in his capacity as Associate Attorney General (not as U.S. Attorney for the Montana District) apparently suggested to two of the resigning U.S. Attorneys1.

However, little attention has been given to just how the second of eight children who shared a two bedroom house with his siblings and parents, rose to the level of the nation's top prosecutor. Additionally, there has not been much exposure as to how such a highly intelligent, hardworking individual who gained many honors and accolades during his early career would ultimately craft legal positions that changed the basis for what is considered torture and the interpretation of the Bill of Rights.

School and the Early Years

Gonzales went to public school, Rice University and Harvard Law School. He spent two years serving in the US Air Force (1973 - 1975) and then attended the Air Force Academy for two years (1975 - 1977). He received many honors as well as participated in countless professional and civic activities. From his bio on the White House website:

Among his many professional and civic activities, Gonzales was elected to the American Law Institute in 1999. He was a board trustee of the Texas Bar Foundation from 1996 to 1999, a board director for the State Bar of Texas from 1991 to 1994, and President of the Houston Hispanic Bar Association from 1990 to 1991. He was a board director of the United Way of the Texas Gulf Coast from 1993 to 1994, and President of Leadership Houston during this same period. In 1994, Gonzales served as Chair of the Commission for District Decentralization of the Houston Independent School District, and as a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions for Rice University. Gonzales was Special Legal Counsel to the Houston Host Committee for the 1990 Summit of Industrialized Nations, and a member of delegations sent by the American Council of Young Political Leaders to Mexico in 1996 and to the People's Republic of China in 1995.

Among his many honors, in 2003 alone, Gonzales was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Alumni Hall of Fame, was honored with the Good Neighbor Award from the United States-Mexico Chamber of Commerce, and received President's Awards from the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the League of United Latin American Citizens. In 2002, he was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of Rice University by the Association of Rice Alumni and was honored by the Harvard Law School Association with the Harvard Law School Association Award. Gonzales was recognized as the 1999 Latino Lawyer of the Year by the Hispanic National Bar Association, and he received a Presidential Citation from the State Bar of Texas in 1997 for his dedication to addressing basic legal needs of the indigent. He was chosen as one of the Five Outstanding Young Texans by the Texas Jaycees in 1994, and as the Outstanding Young Lawyer of Texas by the Texas Young Lawyers Association in 1992. Gonzales was honored by the United Way in 1993 with a Commitment to Leadership Award, and received the Hispanic Salute Award in 1989 from the Houston Metro Ford Dealers for his work in the field of education.

Political Career

Gonzales didn't work with George W. Bush until 1994, when he became a senior adviser to the governor, chief elections officer, and the governor's lead liaison on Mexican and border issues. Prior to this, Gonzales was with the law firm Vinson & Elkins LLP from 1982 - 1994, and ultimately became a partner with the firm. There were reports that Gonzales initially turned down an offer to work as part of George H.W. Bush's administration but then later accepted an offer from then-Governor George W. Bush to work for his administration. In 1997 he was appointed as Bush's Secretary of State, and in 1999, he was appointed by Governor Bush to the Texas Supreme Court and then White House Counsel in 2001.

If there is one word that describes Gonzales' relationship with George W. Bush and his rise to Attorney General, it is loyalty. Since being appointed to Secretary of State, Gonzales has taken numerous actions that can only be justified as extreme loyalty to the man who has put him in positions for which, some say, that Gonzales had few prior qualifications.

Gonzales' Tenure as Secretary of State

In light of the testimony given during the March 6th House Hearings on H.R. 580 and the mass, forced resignations of U.S. Attorneys, it is interesting to note that one of the policy directives seems to have been increased quotas on federal death sentence prosecutions, see the Wall Street Journal's excellent article: Federal Prosecutors Widen Pursuit Of Death Penalty as States Ease Off.

While Bush was Governor of Texas from 1994 - 1999, there were over 150 capital punishment executions -- a number that was described by Alan Berlow of The Atlantic Monthly as "a record unmatched by any other governor in modern American history." As Governor, Bush had the power to grant clemency for any of these executions, yet he granted clemency for only one. From 1995 - 1997, it was Gonzales, in his role as (prior to becoming Secretary of State) who was in a position to draft legal documents for Bush as to whether clemency should be granted or if the execution should proceed.

It is here that Gonzales' narrow interpretation of laws may have originated. The documents that he drafted regarding clemency, Gonzales frequently excluded many factors -- some which were crucial to the death penalty sentence -- which could have served as the basis for clemency. As noted in an article by John Dean in 2003:

What kind of counsel did Gonzales provide? According to Berlow, he "repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence."

Berlow writes that the memos reflect "an extraordinarily narrow notion of clemency." They appear to have excluded, for instance, factors such as "mental illness or incompetence, childhood physical or sexual abuse, remorse, rehabilitation, racial discrimination in jury selection, the competence of the legal defense, or disparities in sentences between co-defendants or among defendants convicted of similar crimes."

One such case was that of Terry Washington. Washington was a thirty three year old mentally retarded man who was convicted of murder. However, in the clemency document, Gonzales never mentioned Washington's mental handicap, nor the fact that his lawyer never called a mental health expert at his trial. A Slate article from 2004 gives the following description of Gonzales' work with respect to clemency:

It's not clear whether Bush directed Gonzales to provide such superficial and conclusory legal research, or whether Gonzales did so of his own accord. Regardless, the point remains that the White House's new nominee to head the Justice Department turned in work that would have barely earned a passing grade in law school, let alone satisfy the requirements of a job in which life and death were at stake. Perhaps more important, these early memos from Texas revealed Gonzales' startling willingness to sacrifice rigorous legal analysis to achieve pre-ordained policy results at the drop of a Stetson.

Another controversial act by Secretary of State Gonzales was his legal argument for Bush's not serving on a Texas jury in a drunk driving case. At first glance, it appeared that Gonzales was just looking to spare the Governor from serving on a jury, however a closer examination revealed otherwise. As reported in Newsweek during early 2006, Bush's and Gonzales' motives may very well have been to avoid the disclosure of his 1976 arrest and conviction of driving under the influence of alcohol. The arrest and conviction were almost exposed in 1996 -- save for a legal opinion by Gonzales that a Governor should not sit on a jury due to a conflict of interest. Gonzales argued that Bush, as Governor, may ultimately be in a position to grant a pardon to the defendant, and therefore, should not serve on the jury. And indeed, Bush's drunken driven arrest and conviction were not made public until the later stages of the 2000 presidential campaign.

While Gonzales' argument regarding jury duty may sound plausible on the surface, there are a few factors that make it highly questionable. According to Travis Country Judge David Crain, the judge in this case:

"He [Gonzales] raised the issue," Crain said. Crain said he found Gonzales's argument surprising, since it was "extremely unlikely" that a drunken-driving conviction would ever lead to a pardon petition to Bush. But "out of deference" to the governor, Crain said, the other lawyers went along. Wahlberg said he agreed to make the motion striking Bush because he didn't want the hard-line governor on his jury anyway. But there was little doubt among the participants as to what was going on. "In public, they were making a big show of how he was prepared to serve," said Crain. "In the back room, they were trying to get him off."

Additionally, Bush's jury questionnaire contained a question as to whether he was ever accused in a criminal case -- a question that he left blank. While Gonzales denied any request or meeting to have Bush excluded from the jury, this was disputed by the lawyer for the defendant.

Texas Supreme Court

Gonzales' term on the Texas Supreme Court -- as far as decisions go, wasn't too controversial. According to a profile in Hispanic Magazine:

Evidence of Gonzales' moderate bent can be found in many of his decisions as a Texas Supreme Court justice. He voted with the majority to weaken a state law requiring minors to notify a parent before getting an abortion. He also wrote a landmark opinion that opened the door for some victims of illnesses caused by on-the-job exposure to asbestos to sue more than once over their injuries - a decision decried by some conservatives.

Was there a conflict of interest with respect to Gonzales and rulings regarding Halliburton - a company of which Dick Cheney was still CEO? A few years later, Gonzales fought to keep Cheney's energy commission meetings secret, and once again, loyalty issues are raised. An article written around the time Gonzales was nominated as White House Counsel shed light on favorable rulings for Halliburton and Halliburton's contributions to Gonzales, the candidate. According to the article:

Cheney's Halliburton corporation, through its executives and its separate subsidiaries, was the second-largest corporate contributor to Texas Supreme Court races in the last three election cycles, contributing over $79,000 to the Justices. Five times in the past seven years, cases involving Halliburton have come before the Texas Supreme Court, and each time the Court has either ruled for the company or refused to hear an appeal of a favorable verdict for the firm from a lower court.

In 1999, a Halliburton employee had won a $2.6 million trial verdict due to allegations that a company supervisor framed him to test positive for cocaine, only to see the verdict overturned by a Texas Court of Appeals. Just before the Texas Supreme Court ruled on the case, Halliburton gave a number of contributions to the Justices, including $3000 to Alberto Gonzales. None of the Justices recused themselves from the case and the Court refused to hear the appeal against Halliburton.

Making the Gonzales conflict even more controversial is the fact that before being appointed to office, Gonzales had been a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins, L.L.P. in Houston which had Halliburton as a major client. And Gonzales worked in the section where Halliburton was represented where he had a strong relationship with the firm.

There were other examples in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram of July 29, 2000 -- numerous cases before the Texas Supreme Court that were decided in favor of Halliburton or its subsidiaries, additional donations made during this time period and potential impact or conflict of the donations on the rulings.

Appointments as White House Counsel

Loyalty was once again a potential issue, when, as White House Counsel, Gonzales surrounded himself with attorneys whose chief skills seemed to be their usefulness in legal attacks on Democratic politicians. The Hispanic Magazine article mentions a number of people who had ties to George W. Bush or the Republican Party:

The most senior of his assistants is Timothy Flanigan, who most recently worked on Bush's efforts to stop a recount of votes in Florida. Another hire is Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote part of the Starr Report on President Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky and led independent counsel Ken Starr's investigation into the death of former White House counsel Vincent Foster. Kavanaugh also wrote in defense of Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives when they sought the right to apply for asylum for the Cuban shipwreck survivor.

Some of the other "dream-team" of conservative attorneys Gonzales has ushered into the White House include a lawyer who worked on the Senate Whitewater investigation and several former clerks of conservative Supreme Court justices.

Although no conclusions can be drawn, parallels surface as we learn more about the agendas surrounding the December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day forced resignation of six U.S. Attorneys. In reviewing the allegations that surfaced during the March 6, 2007 House hearings on H.R. 580, similar themes arise: increased federal prosecution for the death penalty, "padding" of Republican loyalists' resumes, immigration and potential legal maneuvering for political cover-ups.


1 House Committee Hearings during questioning of subpoenaed "former" US Attorneys, March 6th, 2007.

About the Author: Adam Lambert is a tax consultant living and working in the New York City area.  Blogging under the name “clammyc," he has researched and written extensively on issues involving Iraq, the Bush administration and the “war on terror.”

ePluribus Media Contributors: avahome, standingup, cho, BeverlyinNH & roxy