Former aide: Gonzales, White House counsel signed off on firings
Statements by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales regarding his role in the firing of eight US Attorneys were labeled as "inaccurate" by his former chief of staff earlier today.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont kicked off the hearing of the Judiciary Committee he chairs this morning by challenging President George W. Bush's authority to control the system of United States Attorneys for political purposes.
"United States Attorneys may serve at the pleasure of the president, but justice does not serve at the pleasure of the president, or any president," he said.
The hearing got off to a slow and disrupted start as the Senate wrapped up a vote on Iraq.
Leahy thanked D. Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for testifying voluntarily and without the need to issue subpoenas.
"The Attorney General admits mistake were made, but seems to say those mistakes were made mostly by Mr. Sampson," the Vermont Democrat explained.
He then charged the Bush administration with telling an inconsistent story about the firing of 8 U.S. Attorneys.
"Regrettably, what we have heard from the administration is a series of shifting explanations, excuses, a lack of accountability or even acknowledgment of the seriousness of this matter," he argued.
Leahy was followed by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who assailed the Bush administration for downplaying the significance of the events.
"Just 7 weeks ago, the Department of Justice insisted we were making a big deal out of nothing," he said, and then noted the resignations of Sampson, other officials, as well as the decision by another Justice official, Monica Goodling, to plead her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
He then noted that White House aide Karl Rove and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had been directly implicated in the firing of the attorneys, and charged the Bush administration with dissembling.
"The list of contradictions, contortions, and distortions grows longer every day," he warned.
Schumer insisted that today's hearing was not a partisan exercise.
"The purpose is not gotcha. The purpose is, as they said in Dragnet, 'just the facts ma'am.'"
Ranking Republican criticizes White House
After a lengthy recess, top Republicans on the Committee delivered their opening statements.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Committee, delivered a strong statement questioning the Bush administration's activities.
"It is submitted that the President had authority to replace attorneys for no reason, but it does not have the right to ask for their resignation for a bad reason," Specter explained.
He then listed some examples of instances where partisan considerations may have driven the firings. "They include whether US Attorney Carol Lam was asked to resign because she was hot on the trail of confederates of Duke Cunningham, we don't know that or not, but these hearings are designed to find out," he said. "Whether US Attorney in New Mexico David Iglesias was asked to resign because he was asked to bring fraud charges when there was no basis for it, we have to make that determination, and whether there was a calculated effort by the Department of Justice to use the provision in the PATRIOT act to avoid Senate scrutiny."
Senator Specter then criticized the offer for the committee to hear from White House officials delivered by Counsel Fred Fielding last week.
"I think that the president is wrong in insisting that there not be a transcript," he said.
Specter was followed by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AR), who said the president had the discretion to hire and fire US Attorneys. He pointed to e-mails written by Sampson in which he said the Justice Department needed to be ready to deal with the political fire that it would get for removing the 8 attorneys.
"You understood I think pretty well the difficulty of removing United States Attorneys," the senator said. "I think your advice should have been listened to."
Sampson admits Gonzales did not tell truth
Questioning then began in the hearing. After telling Senator Leahy that he could not remember many important details, Sampson explained that Attorney General Gonzales had made inaccurate statements.
"I don't think the statement that he was not involved in any discussions is accurate. I think he's recently clarified it, I remember discussing with him the issue of asking certain US Attorneys to resign, I believe he was present at the meeting on Nov. 27," Sampson said.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) then challenged the Attorney General's statement that documentation on the US Attorneys removal process had not been shared.
"If you shared documents with McNulty and Moschella...then the Attorney General's statement is false, how can it not be?" Schumer asked.
Sampson balked in response to Sen. Schumer's insistence that he answer in a 'yes or no' manner.
"It should not imply that I intentionally withheld documents," he said.
At this stage, Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX) spoke up and argued that the witness was speaking under oath and should have a chance to answer the questions. But he was overruled by Sen. Leahy who said Cornyn would have a chance to clarify when he asked questions of his own.
Senator Cornyn then asked a series of questions and drew his own conclusions from them, saying he saw no evidence of wrongdoing in this case.
"I regret that dedicated public servants get caught up in politicaly motivated attacks, and have to hire lawyers, or invoke their rights under the Constitution rather than have to risk prosecution for perjury or some other criminal matter," he explained.
Senator Leahy quipped back, "I don't know how to take that...if people don't commit perjury, they don't get prosecuted for perjury."
Sampson called Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers the "decision makers" who "signed off" on Department of Justice staff recommendations.
"The decision makers in this case were the attorney general and the counsel to the president," Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I and others made staff recommendations but they were approved and signed off on by the principals."
So far, the White House is staying silent on the inconsistencies between Sampson and Gonzales, the longtime aide and ally to President Bush, who has publicly backed him with words of support the last few weeks, despite calls from many Democratic, and even some Republican lawmakers, for the Attorney General to submit his resignation.
"I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Sampson clarifies definition of 'Loyal Bushies'
After Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) challenged an e-mail in which Sampson referred to certain attorneys as "loyal bushies," Sampson tried to say it wasn't simply a political term.
"When referring to loyal Bushies or loyalty to the Attorney General, I meant loyalty to their policies, and the priorities they had laid out for US Attorneys," Sampson said.
Sampson then engaged in detailed exchanges with Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on the firing of Carol Lam, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of California.
Hatch, who employed Sampson as counsel from 1999-2001, said that Lam's firing for the prosecution of Duke Cunningham, as some had suggested, was unlikely because Lam had already been criticized heavily for her prosecutorial record on immigration cases prior to the existence of the Cunningham case, and had already appeared on a list of US Attorneys to be removed.
"I am baffled how a case that does not exist could be responsible for her removal," Senator Hatch said.
Sampson agreed, "She consistently appeared on lists I aggregated based on input from other Department of Justice officials." He explained further that "in the beginning it was due to her office's failure to embrace" the Justice Department's anti-gun violence safe neighborhoods, and later her name came up in the context of comprehensive immigration reform.
But Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sharply criticized Sampson's remarks. She pointed to a letter dated Sept. 15, 2006 from the Director of Field Operations of the US Customs and Border Protection Agency, which commended Lam for her immigration prosecutions, as evidence that this could not be the problem.
"It's a real surprise to me that you would say here the reason for her dismissal was immigration cases," she said, and pointed out an e-mail sent by Sampson concerning the need to fire Lam the day after she began a major element of her public corruption investigation linked to the Duke Cunningham case.
Sampson disagreed, saying that the e-mail also went out the day before the Attorney General was scheduled to meet with Members of Congress from California.