Goodling's comments were the first public acknowledgement of the reason Heffelfinger's name appeared on a list of U.S. attorneys being considered for firing.
Goodling told the House Judiciary Committee she remembers hearing other justice officials express concern over Heffelfinger's performance.
"I don't remember anything subject-specific. The concern that I heard raised was that he spent an extraordinary amount of time on the subcommittee business," Goodling said.
The subcommittee was part of the Attorney General Advisory Committee dedicated to Native American issues. Heffelfinger managed the panel from 2002 to 2005.
“If there's somebody in Washington who thinks I should have devoted less time to [American Indian issues], then I'm ashamed of them.”Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger
Goodling's admission is the latest piece of a complicated puzzle behind the dismissal of at least eight U.S. attorneys.
Heffelfinger was not among those removed from office. He left before the firings, and insists his departure was voluntary. But it has emerged that his name was among those considered for removal.
Heffelfinger staunchly defends his work on American Indian issues.
"If there's somebody in Washington who thinks I should have devoted less time to that issue, then I'm ashamed of them," he says.
Heffelfinger points out that five of the U.S. attorneys who were ousted served on the same committee focused on issues involving American Indians.
"Over almost four years within the Department of Justice, when I advocated with more attention and more resources devoted to public safety in Indian Country, that I was met with what I can only describe as disinterest."
Since the early 1990s, much of Heffelfinger's career has revolved around American Indian issues. In private practice he's represented tribes in a variety of cases. And he was a central figure in the investigation of the 2005 shooting deaths of 10 people on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Heffelfinger says he clearly expressed the priorities of his committee to both Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. He says the department leaders were both supportive.
Heffelfinger alleges the decisions to fire the attorneys came from what he calls "lower-level bureaucrats and functionaries."
"If they're telling me I shouldn't have spent time responding to the tragic shooting at Red Lake High School, then shame on them," Heffelfinger says. "If they're telling me I shouldn't have spent time trying to improve the safety for Native American women and children, who are the most victimized elements of our population, then shame on them again."
Heffelfinger says no one at the time told him to change course.
The Attorney General Advisory Committee held major tribal summits that dealt with issues like crimes against women and children, methamphetamine, Indian gaming, gangs, and solutions to jurisdiction questions.
Heffelfinger says the discussions led to procedures and training to guide both federal officers and tribal officials doing police work on reservations. He says it also produced working relationships with tribal leaders.
"And I'm disappointed that some of the people in Washington did not believe we were spending our time wisely when we focused on improving public safety in Indian Country," Heffelfinger says.
Erma Vizenor, tribal chairwoman of the White Earth Nation, calls Heffelfinger a hard-working U.S. attorney who was visible at tribal events. She says he was always very supportive of tribal efforts to improve law enforcement.
Vizenor says the tribe works well with Rachel Paulose, Heffelfinger's replacement, but the interaction is not as meaningful.
"We don't have the rapport and long-term relationship and understanding we had with Tom Heffelfinger," Vizenor says.
It's not clear what effect Goodling's day of testimony will have on the congressional investigation of the U.S. attorney firings. But her comments provided Minnesotans, and apparently Heffelfinger himself, with the first indication of why he was considered for dismissal.