By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The attorney general's former chief of staff plans to testify today that other Justice Department officials knew about the "origins and timing" of the effort to fire eight U.S. attorneys, which began two years earlier in the White House, according to prepared testimony for a Congressional hearing.
But D. Kyle Sampson -- who resigned earlier this month ahead of revelations that White House political officials helped direct the dismissals -- also will tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that he "never sought to conceal or withhold material fact about this matter" while helping prepare witnesses for Congress. Lawmakers are seeking to determine whether top Justice Department officials misled them while testifying on the matter in recent months.
"Others in the department knew what I knew about the origins and timing of this enterprise," reads Sampson's statement, obtained yesterday. "None of us spoke up on those subjects . . . not because there was some effort to hide this history, but because the focus of our preparation sessions was on other subjects."
Sampson is also prepared to describe events that led to the firing of New Mexico prosecutor David C. Iglesias, who has alleged improper pressure by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), according to sources familiar with Sampson's knowledge of the issue.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Sampson will describe the firing as the culmination of a series of complaints about Iglesias that hinged in part on three phone calls from Domenici to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in 2005 and 2006 and another to Gonzales's deputy last October. Iglesias was not added to the list of prosecutors to be fired until fall.
Sampson's prepared remarks offer few clues about the role of Gonzales, who has sought to distance himself from his former chief of staff. Gonzales is under increasing pressure from lawmakers to step down for mishandling the firings and their aftermath.
The statement indicates that Sampson will emphasize the involvement of numerous other Justice officials in the dismissals -- including Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty -- while distancing Gonzales from the nitty-gritty details. Sampson's statement also says that he "let the attorney general and the department down" by failing to better manage the political response to the firings, which he describes as an "ugly, undignified spectacle," according to the statement.
In advance of the hearing, the Justice Department yesterday apologized for possibly providing "inaccurate and incomplete information" to Congress in a Feb. 23 letter, including the claim that presidential adviser Karl Rove played no role in helping a former aide become interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock.
The apology was accompanied by newly disclosed internal documents that show Sampson was the primary author of a letter containing the faulty claim, which was signed by another Justice official. A draft of the letter was shared with officials in the White House counsel's office before it was sent, the documents show.
Previously released e-mails revealed that the appointment of Tim Griffin in Arkansas was important to both Rove and Harriet E. Miers, then White House counsel, and that Rove asked about the overall firings project as early as January 2005. Yesterday's documents also show that Griffin was considered as a candidate for U.S. attorney in western Arkansas in 2004.
Seven federal prosecutors were fired Dec. 7; Griffin's predecessor was dismissed months earlier. Justice's shifting explanations for the removals have sparked an uproar in Congress, leading to demands for Gonzales's resignation and to legal battles over whether Rove and other Bush aides should testify publicly and under oath.
The Senate and House judiciary panels are conducting separate inquiries into the prosecutor firings. Monica M. Goodling, who is Gonzales's senior counselor and the Justice Department's liaison to the White Houson, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has helped lead the Senate Judiciary Committee's probe, said that Sampson's question-and-answer session with the panel would help provide a clearer rationale for the dismissals, which even Republicans agree is still lacking 10 weeks after Gonzales first tried to explain the issue in public testimony.
"We really only know part of the story," said the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
The testimony could prove crucial for Gonzales, who is struggling to hold on to his job and has portrayed Sampson as the main mover behind the coordinated dismissals. Gonzales has said Sampson quit because he did not turn over relevant information to his colleagues, a point that Sampson disputes in his prepared remarks.
Sampson's testimony includes a broad defense of the two-year process that led to the firings. He concedes that the "process was not scientific, nor was it extensively documented," but he argues that that is the nature of presidential political appointments. Sampson also said that, with the exception of Griffin, the administration did not have replacements in mind for any of the dismissed U.S. attorneys.
"It was a consensus-based process based on input from senior Justice Department officials who were in the best position to develop informed opinions about U.S. attorney performance," according to Sampson's statement.
Staff writers John Solomon and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.