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KEY FIGURE IN JUSTICE DEPT. TO STEP DOWN

Times Staff Writer

D. Kyle Sampson, the chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, is leaving the Justice Department in the first fallout from the department’s bungled firing of U.S. attorneys last year, people familiar with the situation said Monday night.

Sampson, a top lawyer under Gonzales and his predecessor, John Ashcroft, had been identified by congressional Democrats as one of a handful of senior officials whom they wanted to question as part of the deepening investigation into who ordered seven federal prosecutors relieved of their duties in December and why.

The Justice Department is expected to provide further details of its handling of the matter in briefings to congressional leaders this morning, said the sources, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak and because it was a personnel matter.

The House and Senate Judiciary committees also announced Monday that they would ask President Bush’s longtime political strategist, Karl Rove, to testify as part of the widening investigation into White House involvement in the politically charged affair.

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The White House confirmed Monday night that in early 2005 White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers raised the idea that all 93 U.S. attorneys be replaced at the start of the second Bush term. That suggestion, made to Sampson, was first reported in today’s Washington Post.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the conversation was revealed as the Justice Department was preparing Sampson to testify before Congress about the replacement of the U.S. attorneys last year. The Post reported that Sampson resigned because he had failed to tell other Justice Department officials about the extent of his contacts with the White House.

Perino declined to comment on the personnel matter. Sampson could not be reached, and Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos declined to confirm or deny that Sampson was leaving.

The idea of replacing all of the U.S. attorneys “didn’t last long,” Perino said, adding that Rove had “a vague recollection of hearing about this suggestion” to replace the 93 prosecutors and told Miers that he thought it would be unwise.

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The spokeswoman also said that Sampson told Miers that the move would be disruptive to Justice Department operations and unfair in some cases, because not all the U.S. attorneys had served full four-year terms.

“Kyle and the White House counsel’s office [had] discussions over the next 20-plus months as [the Justice Department] considered whether there were underperforming U.S. attorneys” that needed to be replaced, Perino said in an e-mail to The Times. Eventually, she said, the Justice Department sent the final, narrower list and plan to the White House in late 2006, and the White House did not object.

“At no time did anyone at the White House add or subtract to [the Justice Department’s] internally generated list,” Perino said.

The Post reported that Bush had spoken with Gonzales about complaints that prosecutors were not pursuing voter-fraud investigations aggressively enough. Perino said that although Bush and White House staff members had received such complaints, “no one, including the president, asked [the Justice Department] to take any specific action against any U.S. attorney.”

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“We maintain that it is entirely appropriate and within the administration’s discretion to replace political appointees,” she said.

The account suggests a much closer connection between the White House and the Justice Department over the firing decisions than department officials had suggested to members of Congress in recent hearings. The administration has previously acknowledged that the White House counsel’s office had approved replacing an eighth prosecutor, a U.S. attorney in Arkansas, with a protege of Rove.

It is also apt to further raise issues among lawmakers and others about management problems at the department. Sources said that could lead to greater pressure on other officials at the Justice Department to resign.

Justice Department officials downplayed the firings when they were first reported, attempting to describe them as routine. Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty told a congressional panel that they were performance-related.

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But that sparked a round of protests from the targeted attorneys, all Republican appointees. Some of them subsequently testified in congressional hearings that they thought they were let go for political reasons, including failing to pursue cases of public corruption against Democrats.

Gonzales has attempted to downplay the dismissals, declaring in a newspaper op-ed column last week that they were “an overblown personnel matter.”

That attitude has further angered Justice Department critics. On Sunday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called for Gonzales to step down, citing a pattern of mismanagement and “disrespect for the rule of law.”

“There’s an emerging pattern that is extremely disturbing, and every day the sanctity of U.S. attorneys as neutral enforcers of law without fear or favor is diminished,” Schumer said Monday. “We will get to the bottom of this.”

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Gonzales is perhaps Bush’s most trusted Cabinet member, having served as White House counsel before being named attorney general. When Bush was governor of Texas, Gonzales was his legal advisor. Bush later appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court.

Democrats expressed surprise at the latest developments.

“This latest information appears to be inconsistent with the department’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee last week, which indicated that the White House was not involved in the firings, other than to approve a final list. It now appears that the White House was the instigating force,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday night.

“Clearly, this new disclosure raises more questions than it answers, and makes clear the need for further investigation and interviews of both department and White House staff,” he said. “We need to know what happened here.”

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Sampson, a former counsel to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) on the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked as deputy White House counsel for two years under Gonzales starting in 2001.

He joined the Justice Department in 2003 as a counselor to Ashcroft, and stayed on when Gonzales became attorney general. He became chief of staff in September 2005.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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