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Former aide contradicts Gonzales

Times Staff Writers

Despite his earlier denials, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales was deeply involved in discussions that led to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, his former chief of staff testified Thursday.

D. Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general had participated in “at least five” meetings on the subject over the course of more than two years, and had other encounters in which the “strengths and weaknesses” of prosecutors were discussed.

“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.

Sampson’s testimony could be a major blow to Gonzales, who is struggling to hold on to his job in the face of growing criticism from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

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Sampson also disclosed how he and a small band of young lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House decided which U.S. attorneys should be replaced last year.

In one revelation that seemed to startle some senators, Sampson described how he proposed replacing the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who was at the time investigating White House political strategist Karl Rove and others to discover who exposed the identity of a covert CIA operative.

“I said, ‘Pat Fitzgerald could be added to this list,’ ” Sampson said. He was in a meeting with then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and Deputy Counsel William Kelley. “They looked at me like I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had. Immediately after I did it, I regretted it.”

Fitzgerald, regarded as one of the top prosecutors in the nation, subsequently won the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, for perjury in the CIA operative case.

Sampson also disclosed that one of the fired U.S. attorneys, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, was not pegged for dismissal until October, just as two Republican members of Congress were inquiring about his handling of a public corruption investigation of state Democrats.

Sampson also complained to the FBI after a San Diego agent was quoted as saying that the U.S. attorney there, Carol C. Lam, was fired for political reasons, a complaint that led the bureau to muzzle the agent.

Sampson denied that any of the firings was done for improper reasons, but he said that politics in the broadest sense was a legitimate reason for replacing U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by the president.

“The decisions to seek the resignation of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained,” he said. “This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be disposed not to accept it, but it’s the truth as I observed it and experienced it.”

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Sampson’s behind-the-scenes look into how the administration came to target the eight prosecutors left some lawmakers incensed.

He testified that “there really was no documentation of this” other than “a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower right desk drawer.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said incredulously: “So this was a project you were in charge of? This was a project that lasted for two years? This was a project that would end the careers of eight United States attorneys, and neither you nor anybody reporting to you kept a specific file in your office about it?”

Sampson’s testimony about Gonzales raised more doubts in Congress about the attorney general’s future.

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Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Gonzales had “many questions to answer.” Sampson’s testimony, he said, raised “a real question as to whether he’s acting in a competent way as attorney general.”

The Justice Department said Gonzales had no plans to resign.

At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, “I’m going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself.”

Gonzales is not scheduled to visit Congress until April 17. That amount of time, Perino acknowledged, left the issue hanging longer than the White House would like. She said the president had “confidence in the attorney general.”

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Gonzales told reporters March 13 that he was “not involved in any discussion” about the firings.

But the Justice Department later released documents showing that he had participated in a meeting on Nov. 27 about the firings, 10 days before they were carried out.

“So he was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made in his news conference on March 13?” Specter asked.

“I believe, yes, sir,” Sampson replied.

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Under questioning from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sampson said he and Gonzales discussed the issue as long ago as January 2005, when President Bush first selected him to be the attorney general, and later in 2005 and 2006 when the process was “sort of in a thinking phase,” and ultimately to its conclusion in the fall.

He said he did not recall the number of times he met with Gonzales about the issue, but said, “I spoke with him every day, so I think at least five.”

In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Gonzales amended his initial statements, acknowledging that he attended the Nov. 27 meeting, but he and his aides left the impression that he was not involved in deciding who would be fired.

Schumer asked about a statement last week by Tasia Scolinos, a spokeswoman at the Justice Department, that Gonzales did not participate in the selection of U.S. attorneys to be fired.

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“Was that an accurate statement?” Schumer asked.

“I don’t think that’s an accurate statement,” Sampson replied.

Sampson said none of the firings was motivated by a desire to affect public corruption cases that the U.S. attorneys were pursuing, as some Democrats have alleged.

Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) went through a series of Sampson’s e-mails to the White House about New Mexico prosecutor Iglesias. In five memos from March 2005 to October 2006, Sampson did not include Iglesias on a list of those to be fired. But on Nov. 7 last year, Iglesias’ name was included.

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Was it because of complaints he was moving too slow on a political corruption case involving Democrats in New Mexico? Leahy asked.

No, Sampson said. It had more to do with concern that Rove had about voting fraud cases.

“I don’t remember hearing any complaints or anything about Mr. Iglesias’ handling of corruption cases in New Mexico,” Sampson said.

“I do remember learning from the attorney general that he had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions, including New Mexico, that these U.S. attorneys were not pursuing voter fraud cases as aggressive as they could have.”

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He said others in the Justice Department and White House saw Iglesias as someone they wanted to keep, especially since he is Latino.

“Mr. Iglesias was a diverse up-and-comer,” Sampson said. “I knew that.”

Sampson said Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty told him that Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) “wouldn’t have any problems” if Iglesias were fired. For several years, Domenici had complained about Iglesias and wanted him removed. But Sampson conceded that, “in hindsight,” he would not have fired Iglesias.

Sampson was questioned about an e-mail he sent in May, citing a “real problem” with Lam in which he pushed for her replacement. The e-mail was sent the day after her office had notified the Justice Department that it was planning to search the office of a CIA official who was linked to an investigation concerning convicted Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

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Sampson testified that the “the real problem” he was referring to was that Lam was not prosecuting enough immigration cases. He said the Justice Department was under pressure from House Republicans for not prosecuting immigration fraud more aggressively.

He also acknowledged complaining to an aide to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III this year when the San Diego FBI chief questioned in a news report whether Lam’s departure was politically motivated.

Mueller testified this week that the FBI subsequently ordered the agent to stop talking to the media.

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


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