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In testimony before the Senate Thursday, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales contradicted Gonzales’ account of his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year. D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned as Gonzales’ top aide earlier this month, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he and the attorney general discussed the firings on a number of occasions over the past two years. Sampson’s sworn testimony about the firings conflicts with a recent statement by Gonzales in which the attorney general said he “was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.” “I don’t think it’s entirely accurate,” Sampson said, in response to a question about Gonzales’ statement from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Sampson also disputed comments made by Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, just last week about the attorney general’s role in selecting those to be fired. “He did not participate in the selection of U.S. attorneys to be fired,” Scolinos said on March 23. “I don’t think that’s an accurate statement,” Sampson said. Sampson said he and Gonzales had discussed firing some of the U.S. attorneys in early 2005, even before Gonzales had been confirmed as attorney general. Sampson testified that he and Gonzales spoke about the issue on a number of occasions after that. He also said Gonzales attended a Nov. 27, 2006, meeting on the plan, along with Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, Sampson, and a top aide to McNulty. Sampson denied Democratic allegations that the firings were done for improper reasons, such as to derail public-corruption investigations into Republican officeholders. But he acknowledged that the department had erred in labeling some of the firings “performance-related,” saying the reasons for most of them might be better defined as differences in policy views between Justice Department headquarters and U.S. Attorney’s Offices. Despite his leading role in putting together the plan to fire the prosecutors, Sampson made clear to senators that the ultimate decision as to who would be fired was made by Gonzales and the White House. “The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president,” Sampson said. “I and others made recommendations, but they were signed off on by the principals.” Sampson also discussed e-mails indicating that the Justice Department had intended to use an obscure provision in the reauthorized USA Patriot Act to appoint U.S. attorneys indefinitely, without Senate confirmation. Sampson called that a “bad idea by staff” that was not adopted as policy by Gonzales or then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers. “He thought it was a bad idea, and he was right,” Sampson said of Gonzales. (In fact, department e-mails suggest that the idea was Sampson’s.) E-mails from Sampson to other White House and Justice officials last fall indicate that Sampson and the White House Counsel’s Office had expressly discussed using the provision to appoint J. Timothy Griffin, a former aide to White House adviser Karl Rove, to become U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Arkansas. Gonzales appointed Griffin to that position in mid-December, using the authority granted him in the Patriot Act. In addition, Sampson acknowledged that complaints by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) might have been on his mind when he added David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney in New Mexico, to the list of those to be fired after last fall’s elections. Earlier this month, Iglesias testified before Congress that he felt “leaned on” by Domenici to bring indictments prior to the November elections in a public-corruption case involving Democrats. Sampson also contradicted sworn testimony given by McNulty in February. At that time, McNulty asserted that all of the fired U.S. attorneys, with the exception of H.E. “Bud” Cummins III, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, had been removed for “performance-related” reasons. But Sampson indicated Thursday that Cummins was also fired for performance reasons. Gonzales has suggested that Sampson erred in not providing senior officials complete information about the plan to replace the U.S. attorneys. (Sampson helped Gonzales and McNulty prepare for their Senate appearances.) But Sampson said Thursday, “I believe at no time did I ever intend to mislead the Congress or witnesses that were coming before the Congress. I shared information with anyone who wanted it.” Additionally, Sampson did not disavow a Feb. 23 letter from the Justice Department to the two Arkansas senators. In the letter, which was signed by Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling but drafted largely by Sampson, the Justice Department asserted that it had no knowledge of any involvement by Rove in the firings. The evening before Sampson testified, the department acknowledged that the letter contained inaccuracies. And a December e-mail from Sampson to a White House official indicated that he knew that the appointment of Griffin in Arkansas was “important to Harriet and Karl.” Sampson testified that he was referring to Rove in the December e-mail, but he said that, at the time, he did not actually know for sure whether Griffin’s appointment was important to Rove. “That was based on an assumption,” Sampson said. Sampson also said Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, was not asked to resign because of her pursuit of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) or other Republicans connected to a disgraced defense contractor. Sampson echoed earlier statements made by Justice officials that Lam was asked to resign for insufficiently pursuing immigration cases. But Sampson opened his remarks with a note of contrition for his own role in the scandal. “I believe the Department’s response was badly mishandled,” he said. “For my part in allowing what should have been a routine process of assuring the Congress that nothing untoward occurred to become an ugly, undignified spectacle, I want to apologize to my former Justice Department colleagues, especially the U.S. attorneys who were asked to resign.” The hearing appeared to do little to shore up support for Gonzales, even from Republican members of Congress. “The bottom line is, we shouldn’t have conflicting statements coming from the [nation's] top law enforcement officer,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told Sampson. “Right now it is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected]

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