WASHINGTON — Despite his earlier denials, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales was deeply involved in discussions that led to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, his former chief of staff testified Thursday.
D. Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general had participated in "at least five" meetings on the subject over the course of more than two years, and had other encounters in which the "strengths and weaknesses" of prosecutors were discussed.
"I don't think the attorney general's statement that he was not involved in any discussions of U.S. attorney removals was accurate," Sampson said.
Sampson's testimony could be a major blow to Gonzales, who is struggling to hold on to his job in the face of growing criticism from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sampson also disclosed how he and a small band of young lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House decided which U.S. attorneys should be replaced last year.
In one revelation that seemed to startle some senators, Sampson described how he proposed replacing the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who was at the time investigating White House political strategist Karl Rove and others to discover who exposed the identity of a covert CIA operative.
"I said, 'Pat Fitzgerald could be added to this list,' " Sampson said. He was in a meeting with then-White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and Deputy Counsel William Kelley. "They looked at me like I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had. Immediately after I did it, I regretted it."
Fitzgerald, regarded as one of the top prosecutors in the nation, subsequently won the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, for perjury in the CIA operative case.
Sampson also disclosed that one of the fired U.S. attorneys, David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, was not pegged for dismissal until October, just as two Republican members of Congress were inquiring about his handling of a public corruption investigation of state Democrats.
Sampson also complained to the FBI after a San Diego agent was quoted as saying that the U.S. attorney there, Carol C. Lam, was fired for political reasons, a complaint that led the bureau to muzzle the agent.
Sampson denied that any of the firings was done for improper reasons, but he said that politics in the broadest sense was a legitimate reason for replacing U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by the president.
"The decisions to seek the resignation of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained," he said. "This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be disposed not to accept it, but it's the truth as I observed it and experienced it."
Sampson's behind-the-scenes look into how the administration came to target the eight prosecutors left some lawmakers incensed.
He testified that "there really was no documentation of this" other than "a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower right desk drawer."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said incredulously: "So this was a project you were in charge of? This was a project that lasted for two years? This was a project that would end the careers of eight United States attorneys, and neither you nor anybody reporting to you kept a specific file in your office about it?"
Sampson's testimony about Gonzales raised more doubts in Congress about the attorney general's future.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said Gonzales had "many questions to answer." Sampson's testimony, he said, raised "a real question as to whether he's acting in a competent way as attorney general."
The Justice Department said Gonzales had no plans to resign.
At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself."
Gonzales is not scheduled to visit Congress until April 17. That amount of time, Perino acknowledged, left the issue hanging longer than the White House would like. She said the president had "confidence in the attorney general."
Gonzales told reporters March 13 that he was "not involved in any discussion" about the firings.
But the Justice Department later released documents showing that he had participated in a meeting on Nov. 27 about the firings, 10 days before they were carried out.
"So he was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made in his news conference on March 13?" Specter asked.
"I believe, yes, sir," Sampson replied.
Under questioning from Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sampson said he and Gonzales discussed the issue as long ago as January 2005, when President Bush first selected him to be the attorney general, and later in 2005 and 2006 when the process was "sort of in a thinking phase," and ultimately to its conclusion in the fall.
He said he did not recall the number of times he met with Gonzales about the issue, but said, "I spoke with him every day, so I think at least five."