Sampson: I suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald

Gonzales' former chief of staff says he can't remember why. Anyone want to give him a hint?

Published March 29, 2007 7:26PM (EDT)

Testifying under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, former Alberto Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson says he once recommended that the White House consider canning Illinois U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald -- the same Patrick Fitzgerald who was serving as the special counsel in the Plamegate investigation.

From the transcript:

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin: Were you ever party to any conversation about the removal of Patrick Fitzgerald from his position as Northern District U.S. attorney?

Sampson: I remember on one occasion, in 2006, in discussing the removal of U.S. attorneys, or the process of considering some U.S. attorneys that might be asked to resign, that I was speaking with [White House Counsel] Harriet Miers and [Deputy White House Counsel] Bill Kelley, and I raised Pat Fitzgerald. And immediately after I did it, I regretted it. I thought -- I knew that it was the wrong thing to do. I knew that it was inappropriate. And I remember at the time that Ms. Miers and Bill Kelley said nothing. They just looked at me. And I immediately regretted it, and I withdrew it at the time, and I regret it now.

Why did Sampson recommend firing Fitzgerald? "I'm not sure," he told Durbin. "I think -- I don't remember. I think it was, maybe, to get a reaction from them. I don't think that I ever -- I know that I never seriously considered putting Pat Fitzgerald on a list. And he never did appear on a list."

Sampson told Durbin that Fitzgerald is "widely viewed within the Department of Justice as being a very strong U.S. attorney." So how did Fitzgerald end up only in the middle range in Sampson's rankings of U.S. attorneys -- not among those who should be fired, but also not among the prosecutors the Justice Department deemed to be its strongest? "I don't remember rating Mr. Fitzgerald one way or the other," Sampson said. "And I believe I probably did that because I didn't want to go anywhere near that. I knew he was handling a very sensitive case, an investigation that included the White House. I was communicating a list to the White House. And so I just didn't touch it."

Update: Pressed repeatedly by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sampson said that he doesn't remember ever talking about the idea of firing Fitzgerald with Karl Rove. But asked to say unequivocally that no such conversation ever happened, Sampson said only that he couldn't remember having one.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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