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Witness to defend attorney firings

Times Staff Writers

The former Justice Department official who orchestrated the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year plans to tell Congress today that such dismissals are appropriate when prosecutors prove ineffective from “a political perspective.”

In his first public remarks on the firings, D. Kyle Sampson says the process of identifying underperforming U.S. attorneys “was not scientific nor was it extensively documented,” according to testimony prepared for delivery to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

None of the prosecutors was asked to resign for “improper reasons,” notes a copy of Sampson’s statement obtained by The Times, but an unusually broad standard was used to decide on proper grounds for dismissing them.

“The distinction between ‘political’ and ‘performance-related’ reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,” Sampson says, noting that a federal prosecutor who falls down on the job from a political perspective is “unsuccessful.”

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Sampson will be the first witness in a widening congressional investigation into the firings -- a probe that has become a test of the Democrats’ ability to scrutinize Bush administration policies.

His much-anticipated testimony also is expected to go a long way toward deciding the fate of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, whose two-year tenure has been imperiled by questions about his role in the dismissals. Gonzales is scheduled to appear before the panel April 17.

Sampson resigned as Gonzales’ chief of staff March 12, the day before the release of e-mails between the Justice Department and the White House detailing a two-year effort to remove U.S. attorneys who had fallen out of favor. One of his jobs was to identify prosecutors whom the administration might want to replace.

Sampson, who will testify under oath, is expected to provide the most detailed view yet from inside the administration of the politically charged affair. Another aide to Gonzales, Monica Goodling, said this week that she would invoke her right against self-incrimination rather than appear before the panel.

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“Kyle Sampson was at the center of all this,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the judiciary committee, said Wednesday. “If you want to find out what happened, Kyle Sampson’s a very, very good place to start.”

Schumer, who is leading the investigation, said the full story may not be known until the panel hears from other witnesses. Sampson’s lawyer has said that the decision to oust some U.S. attorneys was well known among senior officials in the White House.

More papers released

Meanwhile, Democrats and the Bush administration remained at odds Wednesday over the terms under which several officials, including political strategist Karl Rove, would appear before congressional committees. Documents released Wednesday by the Justice Department raised further questions about whether Sampson and the White House tried to mislead Congress about the part Rove played in replacing the prosecutors.

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The documents showed that Sampson was involved in reviewing and preparing a Feb. 23 Justice Department letter to Congress that detailed how Timothy Griffin, a former aide to Rove, was selected to be the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Ark.

H.E. “Bud” Cummins III was fired from that post to make room for Griffin -- a fact Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty acknowledged in his Feb. 6 appearance before the judiciary committee.

That letter, which the latest documents show was reviewed by White House lawyers, said the Justice Department was unaware that Rove had been involved in the decision to name Griffin to the job.

But an e-mail released earlier this month, dated Dec. 19, 2006, revealed that Sampson was aware that Griffin’s appointment was “important” to both Rove and then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers.

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The Justice Department, in a letter to Congress on Wednesday accompanying the latest documents, acknowledged that “certain statements” in that Feb. 23 letter had been “contradicted.”

“The plot continues to thicken,” Schumer said Wednesday in response to the fifth batch of e-mails the Justice Department has released this month. “It seems the Justice Department rarely acted without the knowledge and approval of the White House. In effect, the White House was involved in denying its own involvement.”

Sampson, in his prepared testimony, says the White House first raised the prospect of replacing U.S. attorneys after President Bush was reelected in 2004. He says that White House officials, whom he does not identify, suggested replacing all 93 prosecutors, but he believed that “less sweeping changes were appropriate.”

“The Department of Justice then began to look at replacing a limited number of U.S. attorneys in districts where, for a variety of reasons, the department change would be beneficial,” he says. “Reasonable and honest people can differ, and in fact did at various stages of the process, on whether particular individuals should have been asked to resign. But the decision to ask them to do so was the result of an internal process that aggregated the considered, collective judgment of a number of senior Justice Department officials.”

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Asked by Gonzales to oversee the process, Sampson says, he kept a list of U.S. attorneys to be replaced. As the selection process stretched over two years, the list changed “as new information was received and incorporated.” Cummins was asked in mid-2006 to leave; seven other federal prosecutors were asked to resign in December.

‘A political perspective’

Though U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, previous administrations have been disinclined to replace prosecutors whom they appointed unless there was evidence of misconduct.

But Sampson describes how he adopted a much broader standard of evaluating performance, deciding that U.S. attorneys -- like other presidential appointees -- ought to be judged not only by their professional skills, but by such factors as “their support for the priorities of the president and the attorney general.” A U.S. attorney can be “a wonderful lawyer” and still “not [be] performing at a high level,” he says.

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“A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective, either because he or she has alienated the leadership of the [Justice] Department in Washington or cannot work constructively with law enforcement or other governmental constituencies in the district important to effective leadership of the office, is unsuccessful,” he says.

But he also denies that any of the eight was asked to resign for untoward reasons.

“The limited category of improper reasons includes an effort to interfere with or influence the investigation or prosecution of a particular case for political or partisan advantage,” he says. “To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here.”

Sampson says that when Congress began asking questions about the dismissals, the Justice Department bungled the response through “poor judgments, poor word choice and poor communication.”

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“What should have been a routine process,” he says, had regrettably become “an ugly, undignified spectacle.”

Gonzales’ fate

Gonzales, who at first indicated that he was not involved in the firings, acknowledged this week that he sat in on a meeting in late November as Sampson’s list was being finalized, and also had other contacts.

The attorney general, who has retained Bush’s support, has said he will not quit, although Democrats are not the only ones clamoring for him to step down. Several Republican senators have urged him to resign or have questioned his credibility. And on Wednesday, the conservative National Review, in an online editorial titled “Time to Go,” called on him to step down, saying, “What little credibility Gonzales had is gone.”

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Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary committee, said the investigation into the firings would continue even if Gonzales steps down. “No matter who’s attorney general, I intend to get to the facts of what happened,” he said. “We’ll finish this investigation before we have any confirmation hearing on a new attorney general.”

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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