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Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, March 29, 2007.
Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Hear excerpts of Kyle Sampson's testimony before Congress:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was directly involved in various stages of the process of firing eight U.S. attorneys, contrary to what Gonzales has publicly said, his former top aide told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Kyle Sampson, who organized the effort to identify U.S. attorneys to be replaced, resigned as Gonzales' chief of staff earlier this month for his role in the scandal. In his opening statement, Sampson tried to protect Gonzales. He said that contradictory statements from Justice Department officials represented a "benign" case of bad management, and that he was sorry it had happened.
"The truth of this affair is this: The decisions to seek resignations of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained," Sampson said. "This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be disposed not to accept it, but it's the truth as I observed and experienced it."
But under hours of questioning from senators on the committee, Sampson's testimony became problematic for his former boss. Gonzales has claimed that he was involved only tangentially in the firing of the U.S. attorneys. Sampson said he had informed Gonzales nearly every step of the way.
"I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate," Sampson told the committee.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's ranking Republican, asked Sampson: "So [Gonzales] was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made in his news conference on March 13?"
Sampson nodded. "I believe — yes, sir," he said.
Sampson said Gonzales had been aware of the plan to fire the U.S. attorneys since early 2005. Sampson said he and Gonzales had at least "five discussions" about the dismissals, including conversations during the "thinking phase" of the process, the preparations of a final list in 2006, and, ultimately, the approval of the eight prosecutors who were subsequently let go.
"The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president," Sampson said, referring to former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. "I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals." That statement also runs counter to White House claims that it wasn't involved in the process.
When Gonzales announced Sampson's resignation on March 20, he said his deputy was leaving because Sampson had failed to share information with Justice Department officials "who were then going to be providing information and testimony to the Congress."
Sampson's testimony Thursday suggested that he had, in fact, shared information with high-ranking Justice Department officials, including Gonzales, throughout the process. It also suggested that Gonzales' effort to distance himself from the controversy — and say that he wasn't involved — was misplaced.
"Did you share information?" Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) asked Sampson pointedly.
"I did," Sampson said, saying that Gonzales' statements to the contrary were not accurate. He added quickly that no one at the Justice Department meant to mislead Congress.
U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, so the actual firing of one or eight is legal and, strictly speaking, not at issue in the controversy. The heart of the matter for senators has been the motivation for the firings. Were the eight removed for reasons of poor performance, as Justice officials have said, or for reasons of political control, convenience or retribution? Sampson said the prosecutors were fired last year because they weren't supporting President Bush's policies and priorities.
"The distinction between 'political' and 'performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial," Sampson said. "Some were asked to resign because they were not carrying out the president's and the attorney general's priorities. In some sense, that may be described as political by some people."
The afternoon session started with a little political drama of its own. An unknown senator, thought to be a Republican member who didn't like the way the hearing was unfolding, evoked a rarely used Senate rule that requires that any hearing taking place during a regular session do so only with the unanimous consent of the Senate. That member withdrew his consent, forcing Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to recess the hearing for a short time until the hold was released.
Gonzales will get a chance to tell his side of the story next month. He is scheduled to testify before the committee on April 17. After Thursday's hearing, Specter told NPR that the attorney general has "a lot of explaining to do."