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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was more involved than he had previously acknowledged in the decision to dismiss eight U.S. attorneys. That's the word from his former chief of staff.
Kyle Sampson faced hours of questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee today. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that the fired U.S. attorney scandal may yet cost the attorney general his job.
ARI SHAPIRO: Kyle Sampson arrived to today's hearing hoping to fix the problem.
Mr. KYLE SAMPSON (Former Chief of Staff to the Attorney General): The decisions to seek the resignations of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained.
SHAPIRO: He described the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys as a good faith attempt to carry out the Justice Department's management responsibilities. But under questioning from a string of antagonistic senators, Sampson repeatedly contradicted his former boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
New York Democrat Charles Schumer quoted the attorney general as saying, "I never saw documents. We never had a discussion of where things stood." The senator asked Sampson...
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Was that statement accurate?
Mr. SAMPSON: I don't think it's entirely accurate, what he said. I don't remember if the attorney general ever saw documents. I didn't prepare memos for him on this issue. But we did discuss it as early as before he became the attorney general.
SHAPIRO: That was early 2005, when Gonzales was still the White House counsel. Sampson said they also discussed the firings after that. Schumer wanted to know how many discussions there were.
Sen. SCHUMER: So, were there at least five?
Mr. SAMPSON: I don't remember specifically, but it would - I spoke with him every day. So I think at least five.
SHAPIRO: Throughout the hearing, Sampson described his former boss as playing a more hands-on role in the dismissals than anyone had previously acknowledged. Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse asked how someone like Sampson with little prosecutorial experience could decide the fate of high-level prosecutors. Sampson replied...
Mr. SAMPSON: Senator, the decision...
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): It seems pretty remarkable.
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.
SHAPIRO: That also runs counter to Justice officials' testimony that the White House played a minor role in the dismissals. White House spokesman Dana Perino said I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself. The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin asked about reports that Chicago's U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, was once considered for dismissal. Fitzgerald led the prosecution of the vice president's former chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the CIA leak case.
Sampson said he mentioned Fitzgerald's name in a meeting with two White House officials and they responded with silence.
Mr. SAMPSON: They looked at me like I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): 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.
SHAPIRO: Schumer picked up the line of questioning.
Sen. SCHUMER: It makes you think, well, if it's okay to fire Fitzgerald, who's in the middle of a major investigation, maybe it's okay to fire some of these others? But, second, it does make me question your suitability for this job.
SHAPIRO: Some of the fired U.S. attorneys have testified that they believe they were dismissed for improper political reasons. Sampson insisted that no one was let go for pursuing cases against Republicans or for failing to prosecute Democrats. He also said that the attorney general never intended to use a new provision in the Patriot Act to appoint U.S. attorneys without congressional approval, despite e-mails showing that Sampson suggested doing so. The committee's top Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, sounded dubious.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Okay, so you were discussing plans to replace U.S. attorneys, but you never talked to him about utilizing the provisions of the Patriot Act to circumvent the Senate?
Mr. SAMPSON: Oh, I think I did, but I don't think he ever liked the idea very much.
SHAPIRO: The attorney general will tell this committee his side of the story in a few weeks. He's scheduled to testify on April 17th.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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