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Justice official to plead the Fifth before Senate panel

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NEW: White House says decision shows how investigation has become political
• Justice official to refuse to answer questions about attorneys' firings
• Democrats disappointed that Monica Goodling will not testify
• Former Gonzales chief of staff Sampson expected to defend firings
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Justice Department official will refuse to answer questions during a Senate committee hearing on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, citing her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself, her lawyer said Monday.

In a letter sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monica Goodling's lawyer said she would not testify because senators have already decided that wrongdoing occurred.

"The public record is clear that certain members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have already reached conclusions about the matter under investigation and the veracity of the testimony provided by the Justice Department to date," John Dowd, Goodling's lawyer, said in a letter to the committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

The letter said Goodling learned that a senior Justice Department official blamed her and other Justice Department officials for any misleading statements he had made to one of the Democratic senators who has pushed for answers about the firings, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.

Goodling is a senior counsel and White House liaison to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. She is taking a leave of absence from the department.(Watch why Goodling took the Fifth Video)

The committee has subpoenaed Goodling to testify Thursday. Democratic and Republican senators have raised questions about the firings, which e-mail released by the Justice Department suggests may have been done for political reasons.

Democrats said they continue to want Goodling to testify.

"It is disappointing that Ms. Goodling has decided to withhold her important testimony from the committee as it pursues its investigation into this matter, but everybody has the constitutional right not to incriminate themselves with regard to criminal conduct," Leahy said in a written statement. "The American people are left to wonder what conduct is at the base of Ms. Goodling's concern that she may incriminate herself in connection with criminal charges if she appears before the committee under oath."

Goodling's decision to plead the Fifth Amendment "raises even more questions concerning the potential misconduct and legal violations by the administration in this ongoing scandal," said Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who leads the House Judiciary Committee. That committee also wanted to hear Goodling's testimony on the firing.

The White House said Goodling's decision shows how political the investigation has become.

"It is unfortunate that a public servant no longer feels comfortable that they will be treated fairly in testimony in front of Congress," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

"The attorney general, with the president's support, has urged members of the Justice Department to cooperate with Congress' request for testimony," Perino said. "However, we must respect the constitutional rights of the people involved and the decision of those individuals and their counsel to protect those rights."

Gonzales under fire

Partially due to conflicting accounts of how the firings were carried out, Gonzales has come under increasing political pressure. A growing number of lawmakers are calling for his resignation. (View a timeline of the firing of the U.S. attorneys)

Gonzales has said he had a limited role in last year's firings, which have triggered a dispute between Congress and the White House over the testimony of top presidential aides. After his chief of staff's resignation in the firings uproar, the attorney general told reporters he "was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on."

But documents released Friday night show Gonzales attended a meeting in late November in which the firings were discussed. Justice Department officials said that meeting does not contradict Gonzales' previous statements that he was not involved in the details of the dismissals or in selecting specific prosecutors -- a task he said was left to his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. (Read more about Sampson's role and his upcoming testimony)

President Bush continues to stand by his attorney general and expressed confidence in him in a White House statement Friday. (Watch how the president shows no signs of backing away from his attorney general Video)

Sampson expected to defend firing

Sampson will testify on the firing of the U.S. attorneys before the committee on Thursday.

In response to Goodling's decision, Sampson's attorney, Bradford Berenson, issued a statement, saying, "Kyle plans to testify fully, truthfully, and publicly."

But in his written statement, Berenson also said that testifying on Capitol Hill is not without risks.

"Hearings in a highly politicized environment like this can sometimes become a game of gotcha, but Kyle has decided to trust the Congress and the process," Berenson's statement read.

Sampson was the key Justice Department official in charge of deciding who should be dismissed and the main liaison with the White House over the process. Gonzales has said that Sampson was "charged with directing the process."

Friends familiar with his expected testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee say he will testify that he did what he was told and will defend the power of the Justice Department to be able to fire the prosecutors, because they serve at the pleasure of the White House.

"Kyle is very much a supporter of the president and the attorney general," one friend told CNN. "His main interest is in telling the truth."

The friend said Sampson would "never do anything to hurt any of them" and doesn't believe his version of events will do that.

Friends say Sampson believes innocent bungling was more to blame for the firestorm over the firings than anything malicious.

Friends also say Sampson will tell the truth and is not expected to go on the attack against any former officials. They say he is very quiet, very loyal and isn't the type of person who will try to "get" anyone.

What is not known is how Sampson will answer questions from lawmakers such as how the specific U.S. attorneys were chosen, what specific role did the attorney general play in the process given some of the conflicting evidence, and how much influence the White House exerted.

According to a March 16 statement from Berenson, Sampson said he did not resign because he had misled anyone or withheld information, but for "failing to appreciate the need for and organize a more effective political response to the unfounded accusations of impropriety in the replacement process."

The statement also said, "The fact that the White House and Justice Department had been discussing this subject for several years was well known to a number of other senior officials at the department."

Specter: Firings have left a 'cloud' over department

A leading GOP senator Sunday questioned whether Gonzales "has been candid" about the firings of the attorneys, while another said the issue has left a "cloud" over the Justice Department chief.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Gonzales would have a chance to "present his case" but had some explaining to do. The attorney general is scheduled to appear before the committee April 17.

"We have to have an attorney general who is candid, truthful," Specter said. "And if we find he has not been candid and truthful, that's a very compelling reason for him not to stay on."

President Bush has said he stands solidly behind Gonzales, who was White House counsel before becoming attorney general in 2005.

Two other Republican lawmakers -- Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- also expressed doubt about Gonzales' credibility Sunday.

CNN's Kevin Bohn and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was criticized by several Republican senators over the weekend.

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