UPDATED: Sampson Grilled by Senators on U.S. Attorney Firings — Says Gonzales Made False Statements

By: E&P Staff

E&P will keep an eye all day on the testimony, and grilling, of former Justice Department official Kyle Sampson at a U.S. Senate hearing today.

Asked late in the day by Sen. Dianne Feinstein who was “the decider” in the firings, Sampson confirmed that it was Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. See our latest updates at the bottom of this page.

Earlier, Sampson offered his written testimony this morning (it was leaked last night) and then the questioning began by Leahy, Sen. Arlen Specter, and other members of the Judiciary Committee.

Specter asked about Gonzales’ “candor” in saying earlier this month that he was not a part of any discussions on the firings. He asked about the November 27, 2006 meeting “where there were discussions” and Gonzales allegedly attended. Was Gonzales’ statement about taking part in no discussions accurate?

“I don?t think it?s accurate,? Sampson replied. ?I think he?s recently clarified it. But I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign, and I believe that he was present at the meeting on Nov. 27.?

“So he was involved in discussions in contrast to his statement” this month? Specter asked.

“Yes,” Sampson replied.

Sen. Charles Schumer then asked about Gonzales also claiming that he saw no documents on this matter.

Sampson replied: “I don’t think it’s entirely accurate.”

Schumer: “There was repeated discussions?”

Sampson : “Yes.”

Schumer: “As many as, say, five.”

Sampson: “Yes.”

Schumer then asked if Gonzales was truthful in saying Sampson’s information on the firings was not shared within the department.

Sampson: “I shared information with whoever asked….I was very open and collaborative in the process.”

Schumer: “So the Attorney General’s statement is false?”

Sampson: “I don’t think it is accurate.”

Sampson was later asked if it was a mistake to let “ultimate political operative” Karl Rove to be so involved in the process because of the signal it sent to the public about political influence in the process. He agreed that it was.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein focused on the firing of Carol Lam as U.S. attorney in her state of California. She asked about the move to fire her just after she sent notice on a probe of CIA official “Dusty” Foggo. Sampson said the move was really tied to Lam’s lack of aggresiveness on immigration cases.

She then asked whether he was aware that several of the other fired attorneys were looking at corruption claims against Republican office holders. Sampson denied awareness in some cases, and admitted others.

Asked if he admitted there was a “perception problem” in the firing of U.S. attorneys who were engaged in sensitive political cases. Sampson said he “regretted” how it was handled. But then asked if he regretted the action or just how it was handled, he said, “I did not take adequate account of the perception problem that would result.”

Sampson claimed he kept no specific file on the process, just scattered lists, kept in a bottom drawer in his desk. This elicited some skepticism, considering the gravity of this termination move.

The hearings recessed at 12:30, and resumed at 1:45 p.m.

When they began again, Sen. Ted Kennedy focused on the appointment of a Karl Rove associate Tim Griffin as a U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Sampson said he did not remember talking to Rove about this, even though he mentioned in an email that the appointment was “important” to Rove.

Kennedy then asked if Sampson had any meetings in White House where people discussed the U.S. attorney replacements. Sampson said he had on a “handful” of occasions, with White House counsel Harriet Miers among the attendees.

One of the highlights that followed was Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois asking how Sampson could have suggested the firing of Patrick Fitzgerald, prosecutor in the Libby/CIA leak case.

“On one occasion in 2006, in discussing the removal of U.S. attorneys,” Sampson explained, “I was speaking with Harriet Miers and Bill Kelley and I raised Pat Fitzgerald, and immediately after I did it, I regretted it. I thought, I knew it was the wrong thing to do, I knew it was inappropriate…. I said, ‘Patrick Fitzgerald could be added to this list.’… They just looked at me.”

Durbin asked why he even suggested it. Sampson said he didn’t know why, maybe it was just to “get a reaction out of them.”

Later, Sen. Schumer asked, acidly, whether Miers ever suggested that maybe young, lightly experienced, Sampson wasn’t the best person to be in charge of firing U.S. attorneys after he made the suggestion about canning widely-respected Patrick Fitzgerald? Sampson said no.

Sampson, pressed by Sen. Feinstein, admitted that no one that he knew of had raised complaints with Lam herself relating to the ostensible reason she was fired — the slowness to bring immigration cases. She again suggested that he firing had more to to do with her looking into the “Foggo” case.

Sen. Specter asked about Sampson’s idea of using the Patriot Act to avoid needing Senate confirmation in putting new U.S. attorneys in office. Sampson claimed that it was never approved by Gonzales, but pressed by Specter, he admitted that when he had discussed it with Miers she neither accepted nor rejected it.

Sen. Schumer returned to the firing of David Yglesias in New Mexico and confirmed that Sampson had talked to Karl Rove about him last fall. Sampson earlier said he had no idea who put Yglesias on the firing list near the end of the process, or what date that was. Schumer pointed out that Sampson had highly recommended Yglesias earlier, and had suggested keeping him off the list.

So Schumer said he wanted to get to the bottom of “how did Yglesias end up on the hit list?”

For one thing, Sampson said that Karl Rove had talked to Gonzales last fall about three U.S. attorneys, including Yglesias, who were allegedly not doing enough about voter fraud. Schumer pointed out that the FBI had said that no one had complained to them about this. Sampson admitted he had done no looking into this either.

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