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Ex-Aide Contradicts Gonzales on Firings

"The president is confident the attorney general can overcome these challenges and concerns," she said.

Seven federal prosecutors were fired Dec. 7; another had been dismissed months earlier. Justice's shifting explanations have sparked an uproar in Congress, leading to demands for Gonzales's resignation and legal battles over whether Rove and other Bush aides should testify publicly and under oath.

Monica M. Goodling, on leave after serving as Gonzales's senior counselor and the Justice Department's liaison to the White House, has invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying to Congress.

In nearly seven hours of testimony, Sampson repeatedly stressed that he and other Bush administration officials did nothing improper in removing the prosecutors, who are political appointees. He also said that the "distinction between political and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial."

But he also expressed deep regret over the way the firings and their aftermath were handled by the Justice Department. He disputed contentions by Gonzales and other Justice officials that he resigned because he had withheld information about his activities from Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and others.

As described by Sampson, the process of developing the list was based largely on the perceptions of Sampson and top Justice and White House officials of each prosecutor's loyalty and adherence to Bush administration priorities.

Under questioning near the end of the day from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sampson said Iglesias should not have been fired.

"Looking back on all of this, I wish we could do it over again," Sampson said. "In hindsight, I wish the department hadn't gone down this road at all."

A great deal of questioning centered on Iglesias, the Albuquerque prosecutor. He has said he felt improperly pressured by Sen. Pete V. Domenici and Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republicans who allegedly called him before the midterm elections about the status of an ongoing corruption probe that targeted state Democrats.

Iglesias, initially ranked by Sampson as a "diverse up-and-comer" who could be tapped for top Justice Department jobs, was suddenly added to the firing list between Oct. 17 and Nov. 7, according to yesterday's testimony.

Sampson said he was aware of repeated complaints about Iglesias by Domenici, who called Gonzales and McNulty four times from late 2005 to 2006. Another key factor was complaints from the White House that Iglesias -- who was invited to train other prosecutors at two Justice Department seminars on voter fraud -- had not been aggressive enough in carrying out voter-fraud investigations.

"I do remember learning from the attorney general that he had heard complaints from Karl Rove," Sampson said.

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