LISLE – A former attorney general during the President George W. Bush era made a stop at Benedictine College on Thursday night to speak about ethics.
Alberto Gonzales resigned from the position in 2007 after several months of controversy surrounding the firing of several U.S. attorneys for what some claimed were political reasons and defense of post-9/11 interrogation and surveillance techniques.
"I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to work in Washington, where success is rare and every little misstep or stumble is magnified," he said. "And contributing to hysteria that often envelops our nation's capital these days is the reaction generated by even the whiff of a scandal or wrongdoing."
Gonzales spoke at a dinner in front of more than 100 area lawyers and students through a partnership of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and the school's Center for Civic Leadership.
The latter routinely brings speakers from both sides of the aisle to present their experience serving the public, said acting director and assistant professor of political science Phillip Hardy.
The past controversy of Thursday's keynote speaker didn't cause much pause, Hardy said.
"We didn't have many conversations about that in particular, but we were aware of the fact that when he left there were people who had raised concerned about the constitutionality of waterboarding, whether waterboarding was torture," he said. "But that wasn't a primary component of the decision to bring him in or not bring him in."
Gonzalez, who was recently named dean of Belmont Law School, spoke and answered questions for around an hour, focusing on his time in the White House. He spent most of his time discussing the Valerie Plame affair, in which the identity of the then-undercover CIA agent was compromised by a reporter in 2003, eventually leading to her resignation and a criminal investigation.
The former attorney general, who was then serving as White House counsel at the time, came under fire at the time for waiting overnight to tell staff to begin preserving documents because of the investigation.
Gonzales brushed off the assertion, and said, "Throughout the investigation, everything we communicated to the staff, we did it only after clearing it with the prosecutors. We wanted to avoid any possible charge of obstruction of justice, and we also felt this was very consistent with President Bush's directive to fully cooperate with the investigation."
Gonzales said that kind of cooperation was difficult for a large organization. He said that their staff's decisions to avoid an internal investigation, laying out groundwork for ethical behavior and clear boundaries as to who White House council represented – Bush was advised to get an outside legal team – were examples that many lawyers could follow.
"I also learned that the best way to protect someone with whom you have a close relationship is to respect that there are lines of ethics and professionalism with you as a lawyer," he said, speaking of the president.
Gonzales said that his time as attorney general was "the hardest thing I've ever done," but that he would do it again.
"Many believe our government is broken today, polarized by politics," he said. "Unable to serve us effectively because too many members it seems are worried more about their next election than about the next generation."