WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was involved in the controversial decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year,his former chief of staff told the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.
The testimony of Kyle Sampson,who resigned earlier this month,contradicts Gonzales' previous statement that he was not involved in talks about asking the federal prosecutors to resign.
“I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate,” Sampson said under intense questioning from committee members.
Sampson said Gonzales was present at several meetings when the plan to fire the attorneys was discussed – a statement corroborated by Department of Justice e-mails provided to the committee. Sampson also referred to a series of daily discussions with the attorney general about plans to replace the attorneys.
In his opening statement,Sampson said he maintained a list of federal prosecutors who reflected “the aggregation of views” of senior Department of Justice officials. Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers,who resigned in January,were ultimately responsible for approving the list of attorneys to be fired,Sampson said.
Sampson said the list was “not scientific” or “extensively documented,” and it was circulated among “a number of senior Justice Department officials” before it was executed.
“I was the keeper of the list,absolutely,” he said. “The attorney general was the one that decided.”
Gonzales has said he had only distant knowledge of the process and was not closely involved in the firings,which have been criticized as an embarrassment for the Justice Department.
The attorneys,who were asked to resign because of “performance-related” issues,have protested that they were fired for political reasons.
“The distinction between ‘political' and ‘performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is,in my view,largely artificial,” Sampson said.
The attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president,who can fire them for any reason. Sampson argued that failure to aggressively pursue the administration's policies,such as prosecuting immigration and voter fraud cases,is a form of underperformance.
He said that the firings were carried out in good faith,but that the Justice Department “bungled” its explanation of the decision.
Sampson also admitted that he personally recommended the appointment of interim U.S. attorneys under a little-known provision of the Patriot Act,thus circumventing Senate scrutiny and confirmation.
“It was a bad idea by the staff that was not adopted by the principals,” Sampson said.
He maintained that neither Gonzales nor Meirs supported using the provision,which both the House and Senate have recently voted to overturn.
Sampson was asked specifically about former U.S. attorneys Carol Lam,in California,and David Iglesias,in New Mexico.
Despite the attorneys' stellar credentials and case histories,the Justice Department has held that they did not do enough to advance the administration's policies,including prosecuting voter fraud and immigration cases.
Sampson said that,if he could do it over,he would not include Iglesias on the list of U.S. attorneys to be let go.
“I wish I could do it over again,” he said,”In hindsight,I wish the department had not gone down this road at all.”
Sampson also defended himself against accusations that he kept information from the attorney general or his staff,leading to faulty testimony before Congress. He said that,in briefing the staff,he was more focused on why the prosecutors were fired than on the origins and history of the plan to replace them.
Sampson said that he did his “level best” to share information with Paul McNulty,deputy attorney general,and William Moschella,associate deputy attorney general,before they testified before Congress about the firings. He said that,”in hindsight,” he should have been better prepared.
Sen. Arlen Specter,R-Pa.,the committee's senior Republican,said the mishandling had led to low morale among U.S. attorneys who now fear being fired “for a bad reason.”
“It is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair,perhaps even dysfunctional,because of what has happened,” he said.
Sampson received some support from Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas,who said he saw no evidence that the firings were designed to prevent criminal investigation of Justice Department officials,and Sen. Orrin Hatch,R-Utah,who commended him for speaking willingly and “owning up.”
Other senators were frustrated by Sampson's seemingly blurry memory. Sampson prefaced most of his answers with “to the best of my recollection” and similar phrases.
“What in heaven's name does he remember?” asked committee chair,Sen. Patrick Leahy,D-Vt.
Leahy briefly interrupted the questioning to announce that a Republican had objected to letting the hearing continue. Senate rules require approval from both parties to allow committee meetings while the Senate is in session. The hearing continued,with Republican consent,after a short recess.
The hearing was also interrupted twice by banner-bearing antiwar protesters who were escorted out by police.
After nearly seven hours,the hearing recessed but will remain open to written questions and answers for one week.
“Our goal is to get to the bottom of what happened,why it happened and who was involved in devising and implementing this plan,” Leahy said.