Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said Monday he will resign, becoming the highest-ranking Bush administration casualty in the furor over the firing of U.S. attorneys.
McNulty, who has served 18 months as the Justice Department's second-in-command, announced his plans at a private meeting of U.S. attorneys in San Antonio. He told them he would remain at the department until late summer or until the Senate has approved a successor, aides said.
He also sent a one-page letter of resignation to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whose own job has been put in jeopardy by the firings and their aftermath.
McNulty has been considering leaving for months, but his ultimate decision to step down, the aides said, was hastened by anger at being linked to the purge of eight prosecutors that the Democratic-led Congress is investigating to determine whether they were fired for political reasons.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about McNulty's decision.
U.S. attorneys, 93 federal prosecutors placed around the country, are appointed by the president and work at his pleasure. Generally, however, presidents appoint prosecutors at the beginning of an administration, have them approved by the Senate, then replace them only for cause, not political considerations.
"The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career," McNulty said in the letter, which did not mention the firings controversy.
Neither did Gonzales, in a responding statement that praised McNulty as "a dynamic and thoughtful leader."
"Paul is an outstanding public servant and a fine attorney who has been valued here at the department, by me and so many others, as both a colleague and a friend," Gonzales said.
McNulty irked Gonzales by testifying in February that at least one of the fired prosecutors was ordered out to make way for a protege of Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's chief political adviser. Gonzales, who has resisted demands that he resign from lawmakers of both parties, maintains the firings were proper and were rooted in the prosecutors' lackluster performances.
Two other former Justice Department officials -- Gonzales' chief of staff Kyle Sampson and White House liaison Monica Goodling -- have resigned in the past two months because of the dismissals.
"It seems ironic that Paul McNulty, who at least tried to level with the committee, goes while Gonzales, who stonewalled the committee, is still in charge," said Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
It is unclear what McNulty will do after he leaves the Justice Department, where he has held several high-ranking posts in current Bush administration and that of former President George H.W. Bush.
McNulty also served more than four years as U.S. attorney in suburban Virginia, a position he took three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and one he frequently described as "one of the greatest jobs you can ever have."
Much of McNulty's focus as U.S. attorney was on terrorism cases, including the conviction of Zacarias Moussaoui, who admitted to conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers but was spared the death penalty.
It was McNulty's dealings with his former fellow U.S. attorneys that accelerated his resignation.
McNulty was in charge of overseeing the U.S. attorneys and attended numerous meetings about the firings, both at the Justice Department and the White House, including at least one that Rove attended.
On Feb. 6, McNulty told a Senate panel that at least one of the ousted prosecutors was asked to leave without cause so that Tim Griffin, a former aide to Rove and the Republican National Committee, could take his place.
McNulty also told Congress that the decision to fire the eight U.S. attorneys in December was made solely by the Justice Department. He was furious, aides said, after learning later that Sampson had discussed the potential firings with the White House since at least January 2005.
Gonzales maintains the firings were needed to replace underperforming U.S. attorneys and has disagreed with McNulty's testimony that about the man reportedly fired for Rove's protege.
"The attorney general is extremely upset with the stories on the US Attorneys this morning," Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse wrote in a Feb. 7 e-mail after McNulty testified. "He also thought some of the DAG's statements were inaccurate."
Gonzales and Sampson's lawyer have both said McNulty should have been well aware of the circumstances surrounding the firings. In his own Senate testimony last month, Gonzales indicated he trusted his most senior aides, including McNulty, to decide which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
"It was to be a group of officials, including the deputy attorney general, who were much more knowledgeable than I about the performance of each U.S. attorney," Gonzales said.
However, e-mails released by the department show McNulty was not intimately involved in all the choices and at one point questioned the dismissal of U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden in Nevada.
"I'm a little skittish about Bogden," McNulty wrote in a Dec. 7 e-mail to Sampson. He concluded: "I'll admit have not looked at his district's performance. Sorry to be raising this again/now; it was just on my mind last night and this morning."
McNulty is a longtime GOP loyalist who was spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Republicans during the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton and later directed the transition team for the new Bush administration's Justice Department.