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Former Chief of Staff Contradicts Gonzales in Hill Testimony

March 29, 2007 at 5:20 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Kyle Sampson’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the most hotly anticipated in recent memory.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: Mr. Sampson, please stand and raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that the testimony you’re about to give in this matter shall be the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God?

KYLE SAMPSON, Former Gonzales Chief of Staff: Yes, sir.

KWAME HOLMAN: As chief of staff to Attorney General Gonzales before resigning March 12th, Sampson orchestrated the controversial firings of eight U.S. attorneys. That act has sparked a furor inside and outside the Justice Department and put Gonzales’ job in jeopardy.

Today, speaking publicly on the issue for the first time, he said the attorney general and former White House counsel Harriet Miers discussed replacing U.S. attorneys and approved the ultimate firings, contradicting Gonzales’ statements that he was not consulted beforehand.

KYLE SAMPSON: The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president. I and others made staff recommendations, but they were approved and signed off on by the principals.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of those discussions took place at a meeting last November 27th, 10 days before seven of the attorneys were fired.

KYLE SAMPSON: I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: Is what, is accurate?

KYLE SAMPSON: I don’t think it’s accurate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sampson testified voluntarily, after the committee authorized subpoenaing him last week.

Sampson’s colleague, Monica Goodling, the department’s White House liaison who was present at many of the critical meetings, told the committee she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

White House political adviser Karl Rove and former counsel Miers may be subpoenaed, but the president has said he will not allow them to testify publicly or under oath.

In his testimony, Sampson also disputed Gonzales’ claim that he had not told Justice Department officials about his talks with the White House regarding the firings, leading those officials to testify erroneously before Congress.

Gonzales blamed Sampson, his former chief of staff, on March 13th.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: The charge for the chief of staff here was to drive this process. And the mistake that occurred here was that information that he had was not shared with individuals within the department, who was then going to be providing testimony and information to the Congress.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: Was that an accurate statement that he made?

KYLE SAMPSON: Senator, I believe that at no time did I ever intend to mislead the Congress or mislead witnesses that were coming before the Congress. I think we mishandled the preparation for Mr. McNulty’s testimony…

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt. I just am trying to get yes or no questions. He said, OK, that the mistake that occurred here was that information you had, Kyle Sampson had, was not shared with individuals within the department. Is that true or false?

KYLE SAMPSON: Senator, I shared information with anyone who wanted it. I was very open and collaborative in the process, in the preparation for Mr. McNulty and Mr. Moschella’s testimony.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: So I want to ask, did you share information with Mr. McNulty and Mr. Moschella?

KYLE SAMPSON: I did.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: So the attorney general’s statement is wrong?

Politics versus performance

KWAME HOLMAN: Since the controversy broke, Gonzales has maintained that the firings were not politically motivated, but for performance-related reasons. Today, Sampson said there is no real difference between the two interpretations.

The prosecutors, he argued, were fired because they did not sufficiently support the administration's priorities, which is part of their mandate as presidential appointees.

KYLE SAMPSON: The distinction between political- and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial. A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective -- either because he or she has alienated the leadership of the department in Washington or cannot work constructively with law enforcement or other governmental constituencies in the district -- is unsuccessful.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several senators queried Sampson regarding an e-mail he sent about Carol Lam of San Diego, one of the fired U.S. attorneys. Shortly after news broke that warrants would be issued by her office in a corruption probe involving Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis, Sampson wrote to White House Deputy Counsel William Kelley, saying, "The real problem we have right now is Carol Lam. We should have someone ready to be nominated the day her four-year term expires."

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Now, my question is: Was there any connection between those two events -- the issuance of the search-and-seizure warrants, the broadening of the investigation to include a member of the House, chairman of the Appropriations Committee -- and the e-mail which you sent, saying, "We ought to be looking to replace Ms. Lam"?

KYLE SAMPSON: There was never any connection, in my mind, between asking Carol Lam to resign and the public corruption case that her office was working on. The real problem at that time was her office's prosecution of immigration cases, in the months...

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: And that's the sole reason she was asked to resign?

KYLE SAMPSON: No, sir, but at that time of that e-mail, that's what was in my mind when I said, "The real problem with Carol Lam that leads me to believe that she should be asked to resign when her four-year term expires."

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Jeff Sessions concluded that a combination of miscommunications and ill-advised statements had ended up doing harm to the Department of Justice.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: These are matters that have cast a cloud over the department. And it's very sad. I don't think that we have people here with the kind of malicious intent to do wrong that has been suggested; I reject that. But a series of misjudgments, and overreaching, and pushing harder than should be, perhaps, or something has resulted in a situation that's not healthy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Attorney General Gonzales is scheduled to appear before the Judiciary Committee on April 17th.

JIM LEHRER: And to Judy Woodruff.

Attorney general 'on the hot seat'

Michael Greenberger
Justice Dept., Clinton Administration
This has not been good for the [Justice] Department. It's not been good for the American people who want to have a high opinion of the department.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the revelations from today's hearing, we are joined by Noel Francisco. He served as White House associate counsel and deputy assistant attorney general during President Bush's first term. He's now in private practice in Washington.

And Michael Greenberger, he was principal deputy associate attorney general in the Clinton administration. He's now a professor of law at the University of Maryland and the director of its Center for Health and Homeland Security.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

Michael Greenberger, to you first. What do you make of today's testimony by Kyle Sampson?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER, University of Maryland: Well, it certainly puts the attorney general in the hot seat even more than he was before Mr. Sampson testified.

I think the key fact that came out of this, as evidenced by the lead, was the attorney general and others trying to say that Mr. Sampson took this on his own shoulders and didn't share information, and the powers that be in the Justice Department didn't know what was going on.

And Mr. Sampson made it clear today that the attorney general -- he had had several conversations with the attorney general about it, and he was sharing information or prepared to share information with all the leadership in the department.

This will make the testimony of the attorney general quite important on April 17th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what do you make of this discrepancy? I mean, we heard Mr. Sampson say "inaccurate." Is there another explanation for what's going on?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, that will be the burden the attorney general will carry, but I must say, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, there's a lot of concern here.

I think Senator Specter, who said the department is dysfunctional and demoralized, hit the nail on the head. This has not been good for the department. It's not been good for the American people who want to have a high opinion of the department.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noel Francisco, what do you -- how do you see it all?

NOEL FRANCISCO, Former Justice Department Official, Bush Administration: Well, I think the important point that came out from Kyle Sampson's testimony today is that he reaffirmed that the reasons for removal of these U.S. attorneys were completely appropriate ones.

As Kyle pointed out, U.S. attorneys are political appointees. In addition to being excellent lawyers, as leaders within the Department of Justice, they're expected to carry out vigorously the law enforcement agenda that's set by the president and the attorney general.

And that's the reason why these U.S. attorneys were removed, not because of anything improper. Kyle also reiterated...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying that was clarified today?

NOEL FRANCISCO: I think that was crystal clear from Kyle's testimony. I think Kyle also made clear that what everyone agrees, that the public explanation of this has been horrible.

A matter of public appearance

Noel Francisco
Justice Dept., Bush Administration
These political appointees were moved for completely appropriate reasons, but the administration has done a very poor job of explaining to the Congress and explaining to the public why they did what they did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying so it's a matter of public explanation, public appearance rather than what was done?

NOEL FRANCISCO: Absolutely. I think what is clear is that there was nothing wrong with the actual underlying decision here. These political appointees were moved for completely appropriate reasons, but the administration has done a very poor job of explaining to the Congress and explaining to the public why they did what they did.

I would add that I actually don't see the inconsistency between Kyle's version of events and the attorney general's version of events. If you look at what the attorney general has said as a whole, he's made clear from the beginning that he was not involved in the day-to-day decisions of which U.S. attorneys to remove, but he was aware of the overall process throughout and approved it at the very end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So no discrepancy, Michael Greenberger?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, the attorney general does not have a good explanation no matter what he says. If he says he really wasn't following the day-to-day events, it reflects poorly on the way the department was run, because obviously losing these eight attorneys general was a very big deal.

If he did know, and Sampson reiterated today there were several conversations -- at one point, he said more than five, but his implication was it may have been on a day-to-day basis -- then the attorney general heard a lot about this.

And his statements about not being involved are highly questionable and I think have led him to the situation he's in today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like the two of you were hearing something pretty different here.

NOEL FRANCISCO: I actually think, if you look at a little closely, it's not really anything different. The attorney general, as he's explained, operates the department much like a CEO. He makes the final decisions. He doesn't negotiate the details of those decisions.

Those details were handled by others, but the attorney general's made clear from the outset that he knew what was going on and he approved the final decision. But you wouldn't expect any U.S. attorney to be sitting there on a daily basis looking at lists and trying to figure out what category to put one individual in. That's something that you have a deputy attorney general for and others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said U.S. attorney. You meant...

NOEL FRANCISCO: I meant the attorney general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... the attorney general.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, I've worked in both Republican administrations and Democratic administrations with attorney generals, and I've litigated against the Justice Department and with the Justice Department in private practice.

A decision like this, removing eight U.S. attorneys, which was clearly recognized in the documentation would provoke a firestorm, is something that an attorney general has got to be on top of. And I think the senators expect that of an attorney general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Noel Francisco's other point, that he was saying he believes it's now clarified why these U.S. attorneys were let go, because they disagreed with the policies of the administration.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Well, that was certainly the burden of Mr. Sampson's testimony, but I think the documents speak for themselves. I think, when you have a document that says, the day after Carol Lam in San Diego has issued these search-and-seizure warrants against Republican politicians, and the very next day off, you have a memo going out saying, "This is a real problem," it's true, Mr. Sampson said, the real problem was immigration, but I think it's a matter of credibility there.

And the documentation is so heavy on the other side. As Senator Feinstein said, three of the U.S. attorneys were in the midst of investigations against Republican politicians, and two of them refused to open investigations against Democrats. So that's just going to be a matter the public is going to have to decide.

NOEL FRANCISCO: I would have to strongly disagree with that, particularly if you look at the paper record with respect to Carol Lam, and if you actually do look at the e-mails and the e-mail chain. What you'll see is that, for years, pre-dating the time that she was removed, right up until the day that she was moved, the constant criticism of Carol Lam was that she was not vigorously promoting the administration's crackdown on illegal immigration.

There's no way that you can read that paper trail and come to a different conclusion. And I am not one...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We also heard today that that was not communicated to her. Mr. Sampson said that.

NOEL FRANCISCO: Well, look, many of us have been in the uncomfortable position of having to let somebody go. Usually you try to put a happy face on it, and I expect that's what happened here.

But I'm not one that usually cites the New York Times favorably, but even the New York Times did a close review of all of the e-mails and all of the paperwork, and clearly came to the conclusion that the reason Carol Lam was fired was for her disagreement with the administration on immigration issues, having nothing to do with public corruption cases.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: But as Senator Feinstein pointed out today, she had very high ratings and, in fact, even on the immigration issue, the documentation shows that the department was satisfied.

NOEL FRANCISCO: Senator Feinstein herself criticized Carol Lam for failing to vigorously enforce the immigration laws in California.

The White House's role

Michael Greenberger
Justice Dept., Clinton Administration
The bottom has fallen out under the attorney general; it's just a matter of when the president is going to recognize that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House role in all of this, anything new come out in that regard? Does it move the ball, in terms of knowing what Karl Rove, Harriet Miers or the president himself?

NOEL FRANCISCO: Only in the sense that we would be shocked that there's gambling in Casablanca. United States attorneys are political appointees appointed by the president. Of course the White House is involved in deciding who gets these political appointments.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: I think Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama put it best. It may be technically the president can remove a United States attorney for political reasons, but he had wished they'd been a little more sensitive about this issue. A sweeping removal of eight at this point in time, with their records, was problematic, and the firestorm that has resulted is completely understandable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does this go from here, Noel Francisco? You have the standoff, in effect, between the Senate and the House. They've authorized subpoenas. They haven't actually issued them yet. The president saying, "We'll never cooperate." Where does it go from here?

NOEL FRANCISCO: Well, there's a history of standoffs between Congress and the president on calling upon witnesses in the White House to testify. The presidents of both political parties have always taken the position that executive privilege covers that, but typically they'll reach a compromise, and I expect that's what will happen here, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: I think where it goes from here is there are going to be Republican senators screaming loud and clear, "Get this matter off the front pages. Let's get the attorney general out of there. We need a white knight in the Justice Department to get us out of this mess."

JUDY WOODRUFF: We, I would say, at the NewsHour, called 15 Republican members of the Senate and I believe four Republican members of the House. None of them was available, all of the members of the Judiciary Committees. Are we seeing the bottom beginning to fall out here underneath the attorney general?

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: The bottom has fallen out under the attorney general; it's just a matter of when the president is going to recognize that. As the Republicans made an effort to head this hearing off today, it is very painful for the Republican Party. They want this to end; they want a new attorney general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you believe the attorney general will survive?

NOEL FRANCISCO: You know, the attorney general is facing hard times right now, but he has the support of the president, and as long as the attorney general has the support of the president, I believe he'll make it through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noel Francisco, Michael Greenberger, thank you both very much. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL GREENBERGER: Thank you.

NOEL FRANCISCO: You're welcome.