Hill Hears Sampson's Account of Attorney Firings

Kyle Sampson — former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — testifies before a Senate panel. He says his boss was far more involved in the plan to fire eight federal prosecutors than Gonzales has previously acknowledged.

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The future of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is in further doubt today. He's under pressure over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and also over the way that he explained it. Now Gonzales faces the damaging testimony of his former chief of staff. Kyle Sampson told a Senate panel yesterday that Gonzales was far more involved in the plan to fire the prosecutors than he has previously acknowledged. Sampson also tied White House political adviser Karl Rove more firmly to those dismissals.

And we have more this morning from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: Gonzales initially said flatly that he was not involved in any discussions about the plan to fire the prosecutors. Then on Monday he sought to, quote, "clarify" that statement, saying he had not been involved in the decision-making process. But yesterday Gonzales's former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, contradicted those statements.

Mr. KYLE SAMPSON (Former Justice Department Official): I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, said Sampson, he had discussed the plan repeatedly with Gonzales over a two-year period, as well as with the White House counsel and her deputy and with White House personnel who report to Karl Rove. And Sampson acknowledged that politics may have played a role in some of the U.S. attorney firings.

At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino reiterated the president's support for Gonzales, but her tone was decidedly tepid, saying the attorney general would have to, quote, "speak for himself."

Yesterday's testimony left Republicans as well as Democrats stewing. Here's ranking Republican Arlen Specter.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): And right now it is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair, perhaps actually even dysfunctional.

TOTENBERG: Alabama's Republican Jeff Sessions, who served himself for 12 years as a U.S. attorney, said the attorney general is not the president's lawyer.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): They are the country's lawyer, and I think sometimes they just have to say no. And I think a lot of attorney generals have, and maybe we would have been better off.

TOTENBERG: Senator Specter noted that the federal prosecutor in San Diego, Carol Lam, was fired the day after she notified her political bosses that she was broadening an investigation to include the then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a Republican.

Senator SPECTER: Was there any connection between those two events?

Mr. SAMPSON: There was never any connection in my mind. I don't remember.

Senator SPECTER: It was just a coincidence?

Mr. SAMPSON: The real problem at that time was her office's prosecution of immigration cases.

TOTENBERG: California Senator Dianne Feinstein came down on Sampson like a ton of bricks at that point, noting that the head of the Border Patrol had commended Prosecutor Lam for a 30 percent increase in major immigration prosecutions. Feinstein went on to observe that USA Today had rated Lam among the top three prosecutors in the nation in immigration cases. The California senator noted that the Justice Department itself defended Lam's immigration record, and that Lam not only won a signature conviction of a GOP congressman, she was investigating the former number three CIA official for corruption, and prosecuting vicious drug rings.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): This is a woman that was handling some of the biggest cases in the United States. And you've got a problem with her, and no one picks up the phone to call her and say we want you to know we have this problem.

TOTENBERG: Sampson conceded that nobody from the department contacted Lam to say there were questions about whether her numbers were high enough in immigration cases.

Sampson was also questioned by senators from both parties about the firing of the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, who has called his dismissal a political hit. Sampson acknowledged that Iglesias's name was only added to the dismissal list around the time of the November election, after New Mexico's Republican Senator Pete Domenici and GOP House member Heather Wilson complained that Iglesias was not pursuing voter fraud cases against the Democrats aggressively enough. Those complaints, he said, were registered repeatedly with the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and with Karl Rove. Senator Specter…

Senator SPECTER: Then are you prepared to swear under oath that no U.S. attorney was asked to resign because the U.S. attorney was pursuing an investigation which you thought was too hot, or was failing to undertake a prosecution which you thought should have been made?

Mr. SAMPSON: To my knowledge, that was the case.

Senator SPECTER: Okay.

TOTENBERG: But later in the day, Sampson acknowledged that the calls from Senator Domenici and from California's Congressman Darrell Issa complaining about Prosecutor Lam may have played a role.

Mr. SAMPSON: I'm not sure those things were on my mind when those names were added to the list, but they certainly may have been influential.

TOTENBERG: Sampson said repeatedly that the process for determining which U.S. attorneys would be fired was not, in his words, scientific or documented. He asked the views of department officials, he said. The list kept changing, he testified, and he kept no record of how and no permanent file. Democrat Ben Cardin.

Senator BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): What safeguards did you have in the process to make sure that wasn't being done?

Mr. SAMPSON: I don't feel like I had any safeguards in that process. I was the aggregator of information. I wish that I would've thought of that eventuality. I wish that someone else in the process would've thought of that eventuality. I failed to do that and that's one of the reasons I resigned.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, so fluid was the list that at one point Sampson put Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald into the category of those who'd not distinguished themselves. Fitzgerald, a career prosecutor who had won convictions in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was when listed as undistinguished the man who'd been tapped to conduct an independent investigation of the leak of CIA Agent Valerie Plame's identity. Sampson said he brought up Fitzgerald's name in a meeting with White House counsel Harriet Miers and her deputy.

Mr. SAMPSON: They just looked at me, and I immediately regretted it and I withdrew it at the time and I regret it now.

Unidentified Man: Why did you say it? Why did you recommend or at least suggest that he be removed as U.S. attorney?

Mr. SAMPSON: I'm not sure. I think - I don't remember. I think it was maybe to get a reaction from them.

TOTENBERG: The plan for the dismissal of U.S. attorneys was developed in conjunction with the White House counsel's office, and according to the e-mail with input from Karl Rove. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy wanted to know more.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): In your reply to her, you asked, quote, "Who will determine whether this requires the president's attention?" Did you got an answer to that question?

Mr. SAMPSON: No.

Sen. LEAHY: Who decided?

Mr. SAMPSON: I don't know.

Sen. LEAHY: Did the president review this plan for the removal and replacement of U.S. attorneys?

Mr. SAMPSON: I don't - I personally don't know.

TOTENBERG: Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse observed that the attorney general's chief of staff had tried exactly one minor criminal case in his life and that some of the others involved in the firing plan had even less experience. That contrasted, he said, with the U.S. attorneys who were fired.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): These are people out there making very hard decisions in the real world and they're under a lot of pressure and here their careers as United States attorneys are brought to an end. And in some cases it appears that the make-or-break decision is being made by somebody who graduated from law school in 1999, who may or may not have ever tried a case.

Mr. SAMPSON: The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president. I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals.

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: On what basis?

Mr. SAMPSON: I think you'd have to ask the principals.

TOTENBERG: Attorney General Gonzales is due before the committee to answer questions on April 17th. As for Harriet Miers, well, the White House and the committee are still fighting about whether she or anyone else at the White House can testify.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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Ex-Aide Contradicts Gonzales on Prosecutor Firings

Kyle Sampson

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 hide caption

itoggle caption Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

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."

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