Kyle Sampson, under oath

Excerpts from the testimony of the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Salon Staff
March 30, 2007 2:00PM (UTC)

LEAHY: 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?

SAMPSON: Yes.

...

SAMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. ...

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I was responsible for organizing and managing the process by which certain U.S. attorneys were asked to resign. From that vantage point, I believe I was well-positioned to observe and understand what happened in this matter. ...

After the 2004 election, the White House inquired about the prospect of replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys with new appointees. I believed, as did others, that less sweeping changes were more appropriate. The Department of Justice then began to look at replacing a limited number of U.S. attorneys in districts where, for a variety of reasons, the department thought change would be beneficial. ...

I would be the first to concede that this process was not scientific, nor was it extensively documented. That is the nature of presidential personnel decisions. ...

When I speak about U.S. attorney performance it is critical to understand the performance for a Senate-confirmed presidential appointee is very different than -- it's a very different thing than performance for a civil servant or a private sector employee.

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. ...

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.

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...

Based on everything I've seen and heard, I believe that each replaced U.S. attorney was selected for legitimate reasons falling well within the president's broad discretion and relating to his or her performance in office, at least as performance is properly understood in the context of Senate-confirmed political appointees.

Nonetheless, when members of Congress began to raise questions about these removals, I believe the department's response was badly mishandled. It was mishandled through an unfortunate combination of poor judgments, poor word choices and poor communication in preparation for the department's testimony before Congress. ...

For that reason, I offered the attorney general my resignation. I was not asked to resign. I simply felt honor-bound to accept my share of blame for this problem and to hold myself accountable. ...

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The mistakes I made here were made honestly and in good faith. I failed to organize a more effective response to questions about the replacement process. But I never sought to conceal or withhold any material fact about this matter from anyone. I always carried out my responsibilities in an open and collaborative manner.

Others in the department knew what I knew about the origins and timing of this enterprise. None of us spoke up on those subjects during the process of preparing Mr. McNulty and Mr. Moschella to testify, not because there was some effort to hide this history, but because the focus of our preparation sessions was on other subjects...

As I see it, the truth of this affair is this: The decisions to seek the resignation of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made, but poorly explained. 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.

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...

SPECTER: Are you prepared to swear under oath that no U.S. attorney was asked to resign because the U.S. attorney was pursuing an investigation which you thought was too hot, or was failing to undertake a prosecution which you thought should have been made?

SAMPSON: To my knowledge, that was the case.

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SPECTER: In his press conference on March the 13th, Attorney General Gonzales said that he was not involved in any discussions relating to the issue. But the e-mails show that on November 27th, there was a meeting which Attorney General Gonzales attended which took up the issues or, apparently, discussions on the U.S. attorney appointments. ...

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. ... I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign. And I believe that he was present at the meeting on November 27th.

...

SCHUMER: Similarly, DOJ spokesman, on March 24th, Ms. Scolinos, said the attorney general did not participate in the selection of U.S. attorneys to be fired. Was that an accurate statement?

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SAMPSON: I don't think that's an accurate statement.

...

CORNYN: Is there any -- is there any reason, to your knowledge, to believe that the -- that the replacement of a United States attorney with another individual appointed by the president, and confirmed by the United States Senate, would by -- in and of itself, tend to interfere or impede with any investigation into any criminal -- serious criminal matter that a U.S. attorney's office was investigating or prosecuting?

SAMPSON: Not to my knowledge.

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KOHL: Isn't there tremendous damage done to the Justice Department and our entire system of justice when the appearance of partisan politics seems to trump the administration of justice?

...

SAMPSON: Let me just say that, in my e-mails, by referring to loyal Bushies or loyalty to the president and the attorney general, what I meant was loyalty to their policies and to the priorities that they had laid out for the U.S. attorneys.

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HATCH: When you evaluated the performance of U.S. attorneys, did you look only at statistical categories and written evaluations, or was your idea of performance much broader than that?

SAMPSON: To me and to others in the process, performance-related was much broader. It included production in the office, management abilities, extracurricular U.S. attorney work on the attorney general's advisory committee or other work in developing policies of the administration. It included not engaging in policy conflicts with main Justice.

...

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HATCH: One of my Democratic colleagues said that the only -- that the only U.S. attorneys the administration fired are those who, quote, "are investigating Republicans or not investigating Democrats when somebody wanted them to," unquote. Is that true?

SAMPSON: To my knowledge, that was not a consideration in adding a U.S. attorney to the list.

HATCH: One of my Democratic colleagues said that when you were the attorney general's chief of staff, you actually admitted that U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons.

Have you ever admitted such a thing? Or were any of them asked to resign for... improper political reasons... ?

SAMPSON: U.S. attorneys are political appointees. And, as I said in my opening statement, I think the distinction between performance-related and political is artificial.

I'm not aware of any of the United States attorneys being asked to resign for the improper political purpose of influencing a case for political benefit.

But I'm aware that some were asked to resign because they weren't carrying out the president and the attorney general's priorities. And in some sense, that may be described as political by some people.

HATCH: But that's also described as a performance situation.

SAMPSON: That's right.

...

HATCH: As I read the documents provided by the Department of Justice, you listed Carol Lam as a recommended replacement on a chart dated February 24th, 2005. Now that was several months before the Cunningham scandal even broke in the media, which was before federal investigators and prosecutors, as far as I can see, got involved. ... I guess I'm baffled how a case that did not even exist could somehow have been responsible for her removal. ...

SAMPSON: [Lam] consistently appeared on the list that I aggregated, based on input from other senior Department of Justice officials, from the beginning of this process.

My recollection is that, in the beginning, it was due to her office's failure to embrace the president's anti-gun violence initiative, Project Safe Neighborhoods. ... Later, in 2005 and 2006, the concerns about Carol Lam related to her office's immigration enforcement, in the context of the debate that was going on about comprehensive immigration reform.

...

CARDIN: In your prepared statement, you indicate that one reason for dismissal would be the loss of trust or confidence of important local constituencies in law enforcement or government. And I want to ask you whether that played a role in the eight U.S. attorneys that were dismissed. But I'm particularly interested, quite frankly, in New Mexico and California. And I would appreciate if you could answer that somewhat briefly.

SAMPSON: Senator, the reason that eight U.S. attorneys were put on the list is -- was related to their performance. Related...

CARDIN: My question is, related to the concerns of the local political establishment?

SAMPSON: I understand.

What -- I understand that the eight were put on the list because of concerns related to their performance. I also understand that -- I know that at the time, the department knew that Congressman Issa and others were very critical of Ms. Lam.

I also have been reminded that the attorney general received three calls from Senator Domenici complaining about Mr. Iglesias, and that the deputy attorney general received a call from Senator Domenici complaining about Mr. Iglesias.

I'm not sure those things were on my mind when those names were added to the list. But they certainly may have been influential. I know that the department cares about the views of Congress...

CARDIN: You mention in your testimony that, "I developed and maintained a list that reflected the aggregation of views of these and other departmental officials over a period of almost two years."

The chairman asked you in the beginning whether you had additional documents. Is this a document that would be available, that reflects these different views as relates to the U.S. attorneys?

...

SAMPSON: I don't personally have control of any documents. I don't work at the Justice Department anymore. I don't think they exist. They were lists that I kept and marked up and then threw away and a new list, so I believe that the...

CARDIN: So over two years you -- I'm a little bit confused. Your testimony says that, "I developed and maintained a list that reflected the aggregation of views of these and other department officials over a period of almost two years." Is that not accurate then?

SAMPSON: To be clear, it was not one list that was sustained through the two years. ... All I can say is that it wasn't scientific and it wasn't well-documented.

...

(RECESS)

...

KYL: Did you also believe that the Department of Justice felt that perhaps Mr. Charlton had pursued his point of view after -- after the attorney general had made his decisions final, that Mr. Charlton continued to press his point of view?

SAMPSON: Yes. Yes, sir. That was the substance of the concern.

KYL: So it was that rather than some kind of underperformance in his duties as U.S. attorney that occasioned his request for removal, is that correct?

SAMPSON: Again, I think the term "underperformance" has led to a lot of confusion here. But I think that's a fair characterization.

...

KYL: So even though I can appreciate how you could consider that, under the overall general rubric of performance, policy differences would be subsumed in that, in retrospect, would it not have been better to characterize situations like Mr. Charlton's as predominantly depending on policy differences rather than an underperformance of his duties?

SAMPSON: Yes.

...

LEAHY: We've just received word that the Republicans have objected, under the Senate rules, to this meeting continuing. I think that's unfortunate, but I will follow the rules of the Senate.

...

(RECESS)

LEAHY: Just so people can understand what is going on here, the lack of permission going forward has now been changed. I had raised questions, and the -- whatever objection there was on the Republican side has been withdrawn so that we can -- we can continue.

...

LEAHY: Somebody here just asked me if this had all -- could have been just a result of an accident that we had this lack of concurrence by the Republicans to go forward. I grew up in a faith that believes in miracles, and it's conceivable that accidents -- I've been here 33 years; I've never seen it happen before. So maybe it's -- it was, but I suspect it was not.

Again, I would add if people feel that somehow you can stop these hearings by having these objections -- and every senator is within his right to do so -- it is really not something that's going to happen.

...

DURBIN: [A]dministrative officials confirmed in the press that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois had been characterized in this March 2005 memo to Harriet Miers as a U.S. attorney who had not distinguished himself, neither positive nor negative. ...

So I'd like to ask you: By what basis did you come to the conclusion, in your memo, that Patrick Fitzgerald of the Northern District of Illinois had not distinguished himself?

SAMPSON: Senator, Pat Fitzgerald is widely viewed within the Department of Justice as being a very strong U.S. attorney. He's a strong manager. He's a skillful lawyer and is, by all accounts, a very strong United States attorney.

That e-mail that I sent to Harriet Miers early in March was one of the first -- I believe, sort of, the first time that I had ever aggregated information and put together a list and shared it with the White House.

I knew that Mr. Fitzgerald was handling a very sensitive case and really didn't want to rate him one way or the other.

DURBIN: So you're saying that you were neutral in terms of his performance because he was involved in a controversial case?

SAMPSON: Yes, Senator. To the best of my recollection, I didn't rate him any way.

...

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 Harriet Miers and 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.

DURBIN: Do you recall what you said, at the time, about Patrick Fitzgerald?

SAMPSON: I said, Patrick Fitzgerald could be added to this list.

DURBIN: And there was no response?

SAMPSON: No. They looked at me like I had said something totally inappropriate, and I had.

DURBIN: Why did you say it?

Why did you recommend, or at least suggest, that he be removed as U.S. attorney?

SAMPSON: I'm not sure. 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.

...

LEAHY: What do you recall hearing in the way of complaints about the way Mr. Iglesias handled corruption investigation and voter fraud cases in New Mexico?

SAMPSON: I don't remember hearing any complaints or anything about Mr. Iglesias's handling of corruption cases in New Mexico.

SAMPSON: I do remember learning -- I believe, from the attorney general -- that he had received a complaint from Karl Rove about U.S. attorneys in three jurisdictions, including New Mexico.

And the substance of the complaint was that those U.S. attorneys weren't pursuing voter fraud cases aggressively enough.

LEAHY: And where did those complaints come from?

SAMPSON: I believe, to the best of my recollection, I learned of them from the attorney general.

LEAHY: Where did the attorney general get them?

SAMPSON: To the best of my recollection, I think that he told me that he got them from Karl Rove.

LEAHY: And where did Karl Rove get them?

SAMPSON: I don't remember ever knowing that. I don't know.

...

LEAHY: Do you recall hearing about the president -- firsthand knowledge of the president complaining to the attorney general about U.S. attorneys not being aggressive enough?

SAMPSON: I don't remember hearing anything like that.

LEAHY: And you, at one time, listed David Iglesias as a candidate for principal associate deputy attorney general. Is that correct?

SAMPSON: That's correct. In 2004...

LEAHY: Describing him as a "diverse up-and-comer" and "solid."

SAMPSON: When this process began, in early 2005, my belief was that Mr. Iglesias was a diverse up-and-comer, as I said. I knew that diversity was important to the president and to the attorney general.

I had met David and thought very highly of him. I came to learn, over 2005 and 2006, that others in the department had mixed views about him. And ultimately, those factored into his being added to the list.

...

SCHUMER: Did Karl Rove have anything to do with your suggestion that Fitzgerald be fired?

SAMPSON: I don't remember -- I don't remember anything like that. I don't think so. I don't remember -- I don't remember...

SCHUMER: Can you search your memory and be sure of that?

SAMPSON: I don't -- Senator, I just want to answer to the best of my recollection. I don't remember ever speaking to Karl Rove about anything related to Patrick...

SCHUMER: How about to any of his people who worked in his office or worked for him?

SAMPSON: I don't remember any such conversation.

SCHUMER: OK.

Is it possible? Because you're not ruling it out.

SAMPSON: To the best of my recollection, no. I don't remember that.

SCHUMER: Well, "I don't remember it," or "It's not possible"?

SAMPSON: I don't think it happened.

SCHUMER: You don't think it happened would mean there's a chance that it's possible, correct?

SAMPSON: Senator, I don't think it happened. I don't remember any such conversation.

SCHUMER: OK.

But you're not willing to say unequivocally not.

SAMPSON: I don't remember any such conversation.

...

HATCH: Was Mr. Iglesias removed because he refused to be political?

SAMPSON: Senator, as I said in my opening statement, political and performance related is sort of an artificial distinction in my mind based on the criteria that we used to look at candidates who -- U.S. attorneys who might be considered for replacement.

HATCH: Were these U.S. attorneys singled out for political reasons?

SAMPSON: To my knowledge, they were singled out because they -- because issues and concerns had been raised about them.

Some of those things might be considered political, such as a failure to carry out the president's priorities, but I'm not aware, and I wasn't aware, and I don't remember ever hearing that a factor for David Iglesias or any of the other U.S. attorneys was that there needed to be an effort to influence a particular case for political reasons.

...

FEINSTEIN: I believe you sent an e-mail then indicating who would call the Republican senators. Only the Republicans senators of the states concerned were to be advised. None of the Democratic senators of the states affected were to be apprised of what the situation is. Is that correct?

SAMPSON: Senator, the...

FEINSTEIN: It is correct.

SAMPSON: Senator, it is correct. The view of the assembled group was that Democratic senators wouldn't have a view about the notion of replacing one Republican appointee with another Republican appointee. It was a lack of foresight.

...

CARDIN: I'm just concerned that you put in your statement that the limited category of improper reasons includes an effort to interfere with or influence the investigation or prosecution of a particular case for political or partisan advantage.

That's in your statement. That's in your written statement.

SAMPSON: I agree with that.

CARDIN: Well, what safeguards did you have in the process to make sure that wasn't being done?

SAMPSON: Senator, as I testified to you before, I don't feel like I had any safeguards in that process. I was the aggregator of information. I wish that I would have thought of that eventuality. I wish that someone else in the process would have thought of that eventuality.

I failed to do that. And that's one of the reasons I resigned.

...

WHITEHOUSE: [E]ven if there were no particular case involved, if you were removing a United States attorney simply because they didn't have the right sort of partisan tone, with no particular case in mind, wouldn't that injection of partisan spirit into the office of U.S. attorney also be improper?

SAMPSON: Senator, I don't know. I don't feel comfortable commenting on the hypothetical that you pose. I mean, I don't know. ... [W]hat I set forth in my opening statement as being improper, I believe is improper.

WHITEHOUSE: But there's a lot more that's improper than that. That's not the only thing that's improper in this consideration, is it? You don't have to attach a particular attorney general to a particular case to a particular partisan bias before you have an impropriety in the administration of justice, do you?

SAMPSON: I don't know, Senator.

...

WHITEHOUSE: And to follow up on your conversation with Senator Feinstein, and the immigration issue. And the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam. It strikes me that when the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general of the United States has a real problem -- that's a matter of pretty significant weight. And when he says he has a problem "right now," that temporal element is also pretty significant.

And I ask you, with respect to the immigration prosecutions undertaken by her district, what was the problem "right now" that fits into that temporal urgency that is -- that is described in your e- mail? What "right now" made something different about the immigration thing?

SAMPSON: What I remember was going on at that time was there was a robust debate going on in the Congress about comprehensive immigration reform, and a robust debate going on within the administration about how the administration could show that we were doing everything we could with regard to securing the border. I remember...

WHITEHOUSE: So the problem was not so much a change in her conduct, as with outside atmospherics that affected your view of the importance of the immigration issue?

SAMPSON: I remember the attorney general felt some exposure because the department was being criticized soundly for not doing enough to enforce the border. And there was a debate going on in the administration about how to show that the administration was doing more to enforce the border. And at that very time there was discussion between the department and the White House about the notion of militarizing the border. And in fact, on May 15 the president announced that he was going to send National Guard troops to the border.

I remember also that -- I believe at around that time, I think even on May 11 there was a meeting that had been scheduled to meet with House Republicans who had expressed concern about border enforcement, with either the attorney general or the deputy attorney general.

I don't know that that meeting ever happened. But I remember, at the time, there was real discussion, in the senior management offices of the Department of Justice, about how we could fix that problem, how we could get some immigration deliverables. ...

And Bill Mercer, who, I think, at the time, was the principal associate deputy attorney general, came to the meeting and ... was adamant about Carol Lam and that office's failure to understand what was going on politically and reorient resources to bring more border enforcement, notwithstanding the fact that she had been the recipient of a lot of criticism from members of Congress.


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