WASHINGTON - Eight federal prosecutors were fired last year because they did not sufficiently support President Bush's priorities, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff said Thursday, defending a standard that Democrats called "highly improper."
"The distinction between 'political' and 'performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial," Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful."
The committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, scolded Sampson for causing an uproar that has distracted the Justice Department and jeopardized Gonzales' job.
"It is generally acknowledged that the Department of Justice is in a state of disrepair, perhaps even dysfunction, because of what has happened," Specter, of Pennsylvania, said. The remaining U.S. attorneys are skittish, he said, "not knowing when the other shoe may drop."
Democrats on the panel immediately rejected the concept of mixing politics with federal law enforcement. They accused the Bush administration of cronyism and trying to circumvent the Senate confirmation process by installing favored GOP allies in plum jobs as U.S. attorneys.
"It corrodes the public's trust in our system of Justice. It's wrong," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. "When anybody tries a backdoor way to get around the Senate's constitutional duty and obligation of advise and consent, it does not sit well."
After being sworn, Sampson, who quit earlier this month amid the furor, disputed Democratic charges that the firings were a purge by intimidation and a warning to the remaining prosecutors to fall in line. Nor, he said, were the prosecutors dismissed to interfere with corruption investigations.
"To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here," Sampson told the committee.
Sampson testified that federal prosecutors serve at the president's pleasure and are judged in large part on whether they pursue or resist administration policy.
"I came here today because this episode has been personally devastating to me and my family," Sampson told the panel. "It's my hope that I can come up here today and share the information that this committee and the Congress wants, and frankly put this behind me and my family."
Inaccurate information on Rove
Democrats said Sampson's testimony is key to finding the answers to the political question and a second, investigative query: Did Gonzales and the Justice Department provide misleading accounts of the run-up to the firings?
The answer to both questions is yes, according to a Justice Department letter accompanying new documents released hours before Sampson's appearance.
"The distinction between 'political' and 'performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial," he said. "A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful."
The Justice Department admitted Wednesday that it gave senators inaccurate information about the firings and presidential political adviser Karl Rove's role in trying to secure a U.S. attorney's post in Arkansas for one of his former aides, Tim Griffin.
Justice officials acknowledged that a Feb. 23 letter to four Democratic senators erred in asserting that the department was not aware of any role Rove played in the decision to appoint Griffin to replace U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said that certain statements in last month's letter to Democratic lawmakers appeared to be "contradicted by department documents included in our production."
That admission, only hours before Sampson's testimony, took some of the sting out of Democrats' key pieces of evidence that the administration had misled Congress.
Still, Sampson provided plenty of fodder. He acknowledged planning the firings as much as two years ago with the considered, collective judgment of a number of senior Justice Department officials.
However, he denied that the firings were improper, and he spoke dismissively of Democrats' condemnation of what they call political pressure in the firings.
Sampson maintained that adherence to the priorities of the president and attorney general was a legitimate standard.
"Presidential appointees are judged not only on their professional skills but also their management abilities, their relationships with law enforcement and other governmental leaders and their support for the priorities of the president and the attorney general," he said.
The Rove factor
Sampson strongly denied Democrats' allegations that some of the prosecutors were dismissed for pursuing Republicans too much and Democrats not enough in corruption cases.
"To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here," he said.
The White House said it will withhold comment on Sampson's testimony until he actually testifies.
The Feb. 23 letter, which was written by Sampson but signed by Hertling, emphatically stated that "the department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin." It also said that "the Department of Justice is not aware of anyone lobbying, either inside or outside of the administration, for Mr. Griffin's appointment."
Those assertions are contradicted by e-mails from Sampson to White House aide Christopher G. Oprison on Dec. 19, 2006, about a strategy to deal with senators' opposition to Griffin's appointment. In the e-mail, Sampson says there is a risk that senators might balk and repeal the attorney general's newly won broader authority to appoint U.S. attorneys.
"I'm not 100 percent sure that Tim was the guy on which to test drive this authority, but know that getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc," Sampson wrote. Former White House Counsel Harriet Miers was among the first people to suggest Griffin as a replacement for Cummins.
Said White House spokesman Tony Fratto:"We have been open about the fact that Karl Rove and others were enthusiastic supporters of Tim Griffin."