Sampson to Testify on Fired Prosecutors

The former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will testify Thursday before a Senate panel investigating the firings of eight federal prosecutors. Kyle Sampson will likely be asked if the dismissals were politically motivated.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today, a man deeply involved in the Justice Department scandal tells his story. Former Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson was involved in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. So far, he is the only person to lose his own job as a result.

NPR's Ari Shapiro will be at the hearing later this morning. He's covering the story. And Ari, what was Sampson's role in all of this?

ARI SHAPIRO: He was a point person. He was steering the ship on the dismissal of these eight U.S. attorneys. According to his testimony, over the course of about two years he orchestrated this. Other Justice Department officials were in the know, but Sampson was the one. Based on input from them, the White House adding and subtracting names to the list. And it was Sampson's e-mails that eventually came out that really led this scandal to explode and to call for people to call on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.

INSKEEP: You said according to his testimony, you're already hearing what he's going to say later today?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We have bits and pieces of it. Apparently he's going to say that the eight fired prosecutors were let go because they did not support the president's priorities. He's going to defend the decision to fire these people but apologize for the way that the firings were handled and explained.

And he's basically going to try to do some damage control for the way the scandal has exploded in the last few weeks.

INSKEEP: Trying to figure this out, the administration initially said these prosecutors were fired for performance reasons, poor performance. That had been refuted. The allegation was they were actually fired for political reasons. If you say they did not support the president's priorities, if Sampson says that, where does that fall on that scale?

SHAPIRO: Well, Sampson says there's no distinction between political and performance-related reasons. He's going to say, quote, "the distinction between political and performance related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial."

So when the attorney general told Congress I would never fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons, you know, I'm not sure where exactly it leaves that testimony. But Sampson is going to say there really is no difference here between the two.

INSKEEP: Now, we have to assume there will also be questions about this. The Justice Department acknowledging again last night that it provided incorrect information to Congress about what happened?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In a February 23rd letter to a group of senators, the Justice Department said it was not aware of White House political adviser Karl Rove playing any role in the firings or in the replacements. Specifically in the U.S. attorney position in Arkansas, where a former Rove assistant was given the new U.S. attorney position after the old one was dismissed.

Well, that letter that the Justice Department sent on February 23rd was contradicted by e-mails that Kyle Sampson, whose going to testify today, sent a couple of weeks earlier, saying that this was very important to Karl, Harriet, et cetera, meaning, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the White House counsel at that time.

INSKEEP: Which is going to get into another question that I imagine will be on people's minds today. Democrats are not just looking at Kyle Sampson, looking to make Kyle Sampson look bad. They want to know who else was involved here and who else should be looked at to lose their job?

SHAPIRO: Right. They see this as one piece of a large puzzle. Charles Schumer, the senator from New York, the Democrat whose subcommittee has been leading this investigation, said he doesn't expect any smoking gun to come out of today's hearing. But he says if you want to know what went on, Kyle Sampson is a good place to start.

They have other Justice Department officials that they're interviewing privately and may call for public testimony before Congress like this testimony that we're going to hear today. They see this as one piece of a growing puzzle.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, said they really just want to know who knew what when in this scandal. Yesterday, his quote was, "you can only say so what I really meant to say was three, four, five, or six times before people tend not to believe it."

INSKEEP: Okay, Ari. Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice reporter, Ari Shapiro, who will be covering the hearing later today when Kyle Sampson testifies before Congress.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Gonzales' Ex-Deputy to Testify on Attorney Firings

So far, Kyle Sampson is the only person who has resigned over the scandal surrounding eight fired U.S. attorneys. The former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to testify Thursday morning on Capitol Hill.

The hearing will be an unfortunate homecoming for Sampson. He used to work for the Senate Judiciary Committee, when his home state senator, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), was the chairman. Last week, Hatch fondly referred to his former staffer as "young Kyle Sampson."

"I will resent anybody who tries to hurt the man, because he was in a tough position, and frankly I think handled it pretty well under the circumstances, even though there are things I disagree with," Hatch said.

In addition to being Gonzales' chief of staff, Sampson also worked for the attorney general when he was White House counsel in President George W. Bush's first term.

Having spent years working for Gonzales, Sampson knew how much detail his boss liked to get. It's an issue raised by e-mails by Sampson that the Justice Department released earlier this month — and one the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to question Sampson about.

For instance, Gonzales assured the committee earlier this year that he wanted every new U.S. attorney to be confirmed by the Senate — at the same time Sampson suggested avoiding Senate confirmation for the new U.S. attorney in Arkansas.

In another example from the e-mails, when Gonzales said he would never fire a U.S. attorney for a political reason, did he know that his chief of staff had consulted White House political adviser Karl Rove on the firings?

Gonzales announced Sampson's resignation March 20, the day the e-mails were released.

"The charge for the chief of staff here was to drive this process. And the mistake that occurred here was that information that he had was not shared with individuals in the department, who were then going to be providing information and testimony to the Congress," Gonzales said.

But Sampson said that was not the reason for his resignation. According to a statement from his lawyer, "Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. Attorneys."

Instead, according to the statement, he felt he had let the attorney general down in failing to organize a more effective political response to the crisis.

Former prosecutor Andrew McBride served more than one Republican attorney general, and he finds it hard to believe that a decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys could have been made without the close involvement of the attorney general and other top Department of Justice officials.

"The delegation of the firing of Senate-confirmed United States attorneys to the chief of staff, if it's true that he really made the decisions, is somewhat unusual in terms of the process at the Department of Justice," McBride said.

Those who know Sampson predict that he will not try to undermine his former boss when he testifies on Capitol Hill. Noel Francisco met Sampson at the University of Chicago's law school. They clerked for judges on the same appeals court, and they worked together at the White House and the Justice Department.

Francisco says he thinks that Sampson will do his best to explain what happened.

"My sense is that Kyle believes what actually happened is perfectly consistent with what the attorney general has been saying throughout," Francisco said.

Everybody who discussed Sampson for this story used the same word to describe him: loyal. It's a word that has gotten a bad rap in the media lately, says Helgi Walker, a former colleague of Sampson's in the White House counsel's office, even though it is actually a very good quality.

"Loyalty is being kind and good in return to the people who are kind and good to you in many ways, and loyalty does not mean blind fealty or doing anything unethical or inappropriate and certainly not unlawful," Walker said.

Sampson himself used the word in one e-mail, in which he referred to prosecutors who should not be fired as "loyal Bushies."

Sampson's friends also describe him as devoted to his family and his faith. He holds a prominent position in the Mormon church as bishop of his ward.

Last year, Sampson tried to return to Utah where he grew up. He lobbied to be made U.S. attorney there. In the end, his former boss intervened. At Sen. Orrin Hatch's request, President Bush nominated someone else for the job.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.