By Dan Eggen and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 30, 2007
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was more deeply involved in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys than he has sometimes acknowledged, and Gonzales and his aides have made a series of inaccurate claims about the issue in recent weeks, the attorney general's former chief of staff testified yesterday.
In dramatic testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, D. Kyle Sampson also revealed that New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the Nov. 7 elections, after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained that Iglesias had not been aggressive enough in pursuing cases of voter fraud. Previously, Rove had not been tied so directly to the removal of the prosecutors.
These and other disclosures by Sampson, who abruptly resigned earlier this month, represent the latest challenge to Gonzales's version of events. The attorney general has been sharply criticized by lawmakers of both parties, by his own employees and even by President Bush for his handling of the U.S. attorneys' dismissals.
Sampson's testimony also shows that, along with Rove, other senior White House aides were more closely involved in the dismissals than has previously been disclosed. It adds to evidence that some of the firings were influenced by GOP political concerns and that the selection process was not based on hard data.
Sampson said he even suggested firing U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago while Fitzgerald was prosecuting Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff for perjury. Sampson said he immediately dropped the idea, which he raised at a White House meeting last year, when he received negative reactions from then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and her deputy, William Kelley.
Gonzales has sought to portray himself as detached from the details of the firings, saying on March 13 that Sampson was in charge. Gonzales also said he "was not involved in any discussions about what was going on" in the process. The attorney general sought to clarify that statement in a television interview Monday, acknowledging more frequent contact with Sampson.
But Sampson provided new detail of Gonzales's involvement, testifying in response to questioning that he had at least five discussions with his boss about the project after Gonzales first approved the idea in early 2005 and that the attorney general was aware which prosecutors were under consideration for dismissal.
"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. "I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign."
Sampson added later that "the decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president" -- Miers.
He also described a Justice spokeswoman's characterization that Gonzales "did not participate in the selection of the U.S. attorneys to be fired" as "not an accurate statement." He did say, however, that Gonzales did not add names to the list or subtract names from it.
The Justice Department argued yesterday that Gonzales had already clarified his role in the firings and that his most recent statements are consistent with Sampson's testimony yesterday. Spokesman Brian Roehrkasse noted Gonzales's comments Monday that Sampson updated him on the firings "from time to time" and that Gonzales "was never focused on specific concerns about United States attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino also sought to play down the testimony, saying that the administration has never ruled out the possibility that Rove passed complaints about Iglesias on to Gonzales.
"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.
Sampson said he could not recall who put Iglesias's name on the list. Justice officials have said that Sampson added the name. Sampson said Iglesias's name remained on the list after McNulty told a group of Justice officials that Domenici would be pleased by the firing.
Sampson was also grilled about Fitzgerald, who was listed by Sampson as "undistinguished" in a March 2005 ranking of U.S. attorneys. Fitzgerald is widely considered by his peers to be one of the top prosecutors in the nation. At a meeting with Miers and Kelley in 2006, Sampson said, he brought up the idea of firing Fitzgerald.
" 'Pat Fitzgerald could be added to this list,' " Sampson told the White House aides, according to his testimony. "They looked at me if I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had. Immediately after I did it, I regretted it." Sampson said he quickly withdrew the suggestion.
Sampson also defended his ranking of Fitzgerald as mediocre, saying he sought to assign a neutral rating because of the sensitivity of the CIA leak investigation that Fitzgerald was overseeing.
Sampson also testified that Gonzales did not reject the idea of using a new work-around to avoid Senate confirmation in filling prosecutor vacancies until after Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) raised objections to the appointment of Tim Griffin to be U.S. attorney in Little Rock. Justice officials have said that Gonzales rejected the idea but have been unclear about the timing.
Sampson -- who wrote e-mails from August to December advocating bypassing confirmation -- said Gonzales did not reject the idea until late December or early January. Pryor said Gonzales told him earlier that no such move had been contemplated.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.