On the Firing Line
D. Kyle Sampson was a team player. Tomorrow, Alberto Gonzales's former chief of staff will tell a Senate panel who called the shots.

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

W alking into the FBI gym for a basketball game in 2003 or 2004 to play against John Ashcroft and his boys, you would have found it easy to dismiss the former attorney general's point guard, D. Kyle Sampson. He was, and, well, still is, short and balding and chubby, looking like a smaller Karl Rove. But then at tip-off you would have discovered that Sampson was not a throwaway player or fill-in but a guy with legitimate skills. In a blur he'd take over the game as the best one-guards do: firing no-look passes to open teammates (including Ashcroft, the team's forward), passing the ball behind his back, breaking through a crowd for a layup and taking terribly accurate jump shots that left you and any of the other people he played against--FBI agents, U.S. attorneys, other members of the Justice Department--deflated and quite frankly stunned.

"He's deceptively quick," said former Justice public affairs director Mark Corallo. "I say deceptively because he has this baby face. But he can do it all, though." Tomorrow Sampson, 37, appears voluntarily and under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales until his resignation March 12, Sampson was the man in charge of the axing of eight federal prosecutors who were perceived as not being with the program the administration wished to prosecute. His testimony could be pivotal as lawmakers probe the depth of involvement in the sacking by Gonzales and the White House.

The best guards are extensions of their coaches -- putting into form what had been plays drawn up on the sideline. While acknowledging that "mistakes were made," Gonzales has maintained that he left matters to Sampson when it came to the firings. "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said. "That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."

Documents suggest otherwise, as does one of Sampson's closest friends.

"Everyone was in the loop," said longtime friend Sheldon Bradshaw, chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration. Sampson "wasn't some rogue operative," Bradshaw said. "He does everything by the book." Sampson did not respond to requests for an interview.

Sampson's internal e-mails reveal an ambitious Washington player who relishes the tough move. In one, a week after the firings, he crows about the efficiency in replacing the U.S. attorney in New Mexico: "[Sen. Pete] Domenici is going to send over names tomorrow (not even waiting for Iglesias's body to cool)," a reference to ousted prosecutor David Iglesias. And in a memo headed "Plan for Replacing Certain U.S. Attorneys," Sampson expected elbows would be thrown. Step 3, underscored: "Prepare to Withstand Political Upheaval."

A devout Mormon born and bred in Utah and educated at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, Noelle, Sampson coveted the U.S. attorney's job in Salt Lake City and twice approached the man who still had the job, Paul Warner -- now a federal magistrate -- to ask him when he'd be stepping down. The first occurred in a conference room in Utah, Warner said, and the second took place during a lunch in Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though they shared the same home state, Warner and Sampson followed different public service narratives. A former JAG attorney, Warner had spent 17 years in various capacities in the U.S. attorney's office, saying it "was where I wanted to be, not where I wanted to be from."

In speaking to the eager Sampson, Warner asked him to slow his motor.

"I let him know he would be helped with practical experience as a prosecutor," Warner said. "I told him he should spend some time as an assistant U.S. attorney. If you're going to be chief surgeon, it's nice to do some surgery."

Friends of Sampson defend him as a sharp lawyer more than capable of handling the rigors of any post. Bradshaw came to know Sampson in 1996 in Orangeburg, S.C., when both clerked in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit under Judge Karen Williams.

Something struck Bradshaw about Sampson the first day of their clerkship, he said. Though unimpressive in physical stature, the University of Chicago law school graduate who served as articles editor for the school's law review had that something: the overall presence of a man suited for bigger things.

"Here was a guy that was really bright and not 'polished' in the pejorative sense, but he was articulate and sharp, and frankly, people loved his work," Bradshaw said.

It was in this legal boot camp, a place where clerks get hands-on experience in the drafting of decisions, that Bradshaw, then a bachelor, and the Sampsons became inseparable: going to Braves games in Atlanta on weekends, playing Trivial Pursuit and eating Noelle's unbelievably good desserts and, to her dismay, talking about law long into the night. After a brief stint in private practice at a Salt Lake City law firm, Sampson came to Washington in 1999 to work as counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a man he will face tomorrow, Orrin Hatch. Before long, Sampson joined the Bush transition team following the contested 2000 election. His former law school classmate Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the vice president, had suggested him for the job, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune.

It was during those frantic, compressed weeks of putting together an entire administration that Sampson grew close to Gonzales, who had been Bush's attorney general in Texas, and followed him to the White House counsel's office. In one interview, Sampson said he admired the president because Bush believed that "public virtue and religious values have an appropriate place in public government." The new associate counsel settled into suburban life. The Sampsons and their three children live in Arlington and worship at Crystal City Ward in Alexandria. He runs marathons and has completed several; last year in Richmond he finished in 4 hours 21 minutes.

Very quickly, Sampson drew the attention of others within the administration. By 2003, Ashcroft wooed Sampson to Justice, where he became an integral part of Ashcroft's team -- traveling with the attorney general as he crisscrossed the country talking to members of the Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. marshals and, yes, U.S. attorneys. Described as the person who kept things loose while people fielded cellphone calls nonstop and scrolled continually through their BlackBerrys, after a long day, Sampson would often sit at the hotel bar sipping ice water while his colleagues drank beer.

"He was very skilled," said Ashcroft's chief of staff, David Ayres. "He got things done the right way. He's very disciplined and has a high level of integrity. Yes, he's a good lawyer, but in addition he can make an entity that has 120,000 people run, and that's another set of skills."

When Gonzales succeeded Ashcroft as attorney general, Sampson rose in Justice to become Gonzales's chief of staff. Then last year, his former boss, Hatch, supported someone else as the next U.S. attorney in Utah. Whether Sampson's disappointment affected his handling of the dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys is unclear. What is perfectly visible, though, is the vigor he brought to the task as he tried to implement the doctrine that Democrats suggest has been directed by top-level White House officials. Above all, according to people who agreed to talk for this article, Sampson valued loyalty and seemed ready to judge that quality in others, to determine who were "loyal Bushies."

To establish the criteria for those loyal Bushies, Sampson established a rating system for the "performance" of the country's U.S. attorneys and recommended to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers that a "limited number of U.S. attorneys could be targeted for removal and replacement, mitigating the shock to the system that would result from an across the board firing." And it was Sampson, when presented with a plea from one targeted prosecutor, who quipped in an e-mail, "In the 'you won't believe this category,' Paul Charlton would like a few minutes of the AG's time."

Perhaps more than anything, Sampson's subsequent resignation speaks loudly to the very concept of what it means to be loyal in Washington today. Though sometimes flip in his correspondence, Sampson also appears as a man who's immersed in the mechanics of his task, providing the best possible logistics to carry out a higher mission. "He showed an enormous amount of loyalty," said Corallo, the former Justice public affairs director, "and ended up being attacked unfairly and unjustly by the people for whom he was being loyal."

This loyalty seems to be a hard thing for Sampson to shake. Even following his resignation, Sampson's attorney, Brad Berenson, insisted in a public statement that "Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. attorneys. He resigned," Berenson said, "because, as chief of staff, he felt he had let the attorney general down in failing to appreciate the need for and organize a more effective political response to the unfounded accusations of impropriety in the replacement process."

It is one of the hardest falls in political Washington, when the rapid climber winds up at the hearing table. When Sampson willingly comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow, he will come alone, with his former teammates nowhere around.

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