Friday, March 30, 2007

Ex-aide disputes Gonzales statements on firings

Ex-aide disputes Gonzales statements on firings
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrongly claimed he was not involved in the firing of federal prosecutors, his former chief of staff told Congress on Thursday.

Kyle Sampson also said he shared vital information with Justice Department colleagues about the dismissal of eight of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys last year, despite assertions to the contrary by the attorney general.

"I never sought to conceal or withhold any material fact on this matter from anyone," Sampson, who helped orchestrate the ousters, told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Others in the department knew what I knew about the origins and timing of this enterprise," Sampson said.

The dismissals have triggered a firestorm, fanned by charges the firings may have been politically motivated, and calls for Gonzales to resign.

The administration contends the dismissals were justified, based largely on performance or policy differences. Newly disclosed documents also show loyalty was a factor.

While Sampson defended the firings overall, he voiced regret near the end of the all-day hearing about the ouster of one of the prosecutors, David Iglesias of New Mexico.

"In hindsight, I wish that the department hadn't gotten down this road at all," Sampson said. "That's one of the reasons I resigned" this month.

Iglesias was ousted largely for what now appear to be questionable complaints he inadequately pursued election fraud.

His dismissal came after Iglesias resisted what he described as pressure from two U.S. Republican lawmakers to bring charges in a probe involving New Mexico Democrats. The two lawmakers deny it.


Gonzales, in what could be a make-or-break bid to keep his job, is to appear before the committee next month.

President George W. Bush has voiced support for Gonzales, but also told him to go to Capitol Hill to ease concerns.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, after Sampson's testimony was completed, said, "The president continues to have confidence in the attorney general and believes he can overcome these challenges."

The investigation is part of a drive by the new Democratic-led Congress to increase oversight over how the administration operates.

At a March 13 news conference, Gonzales said, "The mistake that occurred here was that information that he (Sampson) had was not shared with individuals within the department who were then going to be providing testimony and information to the Congress."

Gonzales also had said he was not involved in discussions about the firings. But he sought to clarify his position after the recent disclosure of an internal document showed otherwise.

Subsequently, Gonzales said he was not involved in deliberations over which prosecutors should go, only getting involved at the end. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president.

Sampson said, "I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate."

He testified that Gonzales "was aware of this process from the beginning in early 2005. ... Ultimately he approved both the list and the notion of going forward and asking for these resignations." He said both Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers were directly involved in at least one of the reviews.

Congressional subpoenas have been authorized for Miers, Bush political adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides. The president has vowed to oppose any attempt to compel sworn testimony from them.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and James Vicini)