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Sampson Contradicts Gonzales on Firing Scandal at Senate Hearing

In testimony that is likely to ratchet up the pressure on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, his former top aide, directly contradicted his old boss in testimony Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Despite earlier denials from Gonzales, Sampson said he thought it was inaccurate for Gonzales to state that he was not involved in discussions regarding the firings of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.

“I don’t think it’s entirely accurate what he said,” Sampson said, under questioning from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

At issue is a Nov. 27 meeting in which the plan to oust the U.S. attorneys was discussed. Sampson said Gonzales was present — indeed, the meeting was held in the attorney general’s conference room at the Justice Department — though he did not know if Gonzales ever received documents or memos related to the firings.

(The hearing, which began Thursday morning, ended unexpectedly early this afternoon when panel Republicans invoked a rarely used procedural rule to object to the committee’s meeting while the Senate was in session. The session resumed again a short time later with the consent of the committee GOP.)

During his testimony, Sampson added that “he didn’t think it was accurate” to suggest he did not share information with Justice Department officials such as Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs William Moschella in their testimony before Congress.

Gonzales has stated that the two were not adequately prepared by aides such as Sampson before they gave misleading information to Congress.

“I shared information with anybody who wanted it,” Sampson said, describing the process by which the firing decisions were made as “open” and “collaborative.”

Sampson also testified that Gonzales knew about the Justice Department’s effort to weed out weak U.S. attorneys since the spring of 2005 and was repeatedly consulted — at least five times — before the bulk of the plan was carried out on Dec. 7, 2006. He also said the attorney general signed off on the final plan to fire the U.S. attorneys.

“The decision-makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president,” Sampson said in response to a query from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

But Sampson’s statements were consistent with those of his old boss on at least one point: He said it was his idea, later rejected by Gonzales, to attempt to use a quirk in the USA PATRIOT Act to install interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.

“That was a bad idea by staff that was never adopted by the principals,” Sampson contended. “I recommended that at one point. It was never adopted by the attorney general.”

After he lost his job, Sampson agreed to voluntarily testify before the Judiciary Committee. But Monica Goodling, the former White House liaison and Gonzales counsel, has invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and has refused to answer the committee’s questions. The committee is still seeking the testimony of three other senior Justice officials, as well as that of White House aide Karl Rove and former presidential counsel Harriet Miers.

In his opening statement, Sampson added that he felt compelled to voluntarily come to Capitol Hill and try to explain what happened, despite his trying personal circumstances.

“This episode has been personally devastating to me and my family,” he told the committee.

But he denied anything improper was done and blamed the debacle on poor communications rather than faulty judgment in making the firings to begin with.

“The distinction between ‘political’ and ‘performance-related’ reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,” he said.

“The decisions to seek the resignations of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained,” he added. “This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be indisposed to accept it.

“But it is the truth as I observed and experienced it.”

The questioning in the marquee hearing, part of an aggressive Democratic probe into the bungling of the firings by the Justice Department and White House, mainly fell along predictable partisan lines.

At one point, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) interceded to ask that Sampson be allowed to finish answering Senators’ questions.

When allowed to question the witness, Cornyn indirectly praised him for voluntarily appearing before the committee. He further said he would “regret” it if “dedicated public servants get caught up in politically motivated attacks against the administration.”

Senators repeatedly questioned Sampson about the firing of San Diego prosecutor Carol Lam, who secured the guilty plea of former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.).

They asked about the timing of an e-mail in which Sampson wrote that it was time to take action on the “real problem” with Lam right before Lam issued warrants in a case related to Cunningham.

But Sampson denied any connection to the Cunningham probe. He said the problem was her lack of action on immigration prosecutions.

“The real problem that I was referring to in that e-mail was her office’s failure to bring immigration cases,” Sampson insisted.

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