WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was briefed regularly over two years on the firings of federal prosecutors, his former top aide said Thursday, disputing Gonzales’ claims he was not closely involved with the dismissals.
The testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by Kyle Sampson, the attorney general’s former chief of staff, newly undercut Gonzales’ already shaky credibility.
Gonzales and former White House counsel Harriet Miers made the final decision on whether to fire the U.S. attorneys last year, Sampson said.
“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 told the committee as it inquired into whether the dismissals were politically motivated.
“I remember discussing with him this process of asking certain U.S. attorneys to resign,” Sampson said.
Sampson’s testimony for the first time put Gonzales at the heart of the firings amid ever-changing Justice Department accounts of how they were planned.
Gonzales has said repeatedly that he was not closely involved in the firings and largely depended on Sampson to orchestrate them. The Justice Department maintains Gonzales was not involved in selecting which prosecutors would be asked to resign.
Sampson resigned March 12. A day later, Gonzales said he “never saw documents. We never had a discussion about where things stood” in the firings.
Sampson also confirmed a large White House role in planning the firings. That undercut the department’s long-cherished image of acting independently in pursing crime.
He said White House political staffers working for presidential aide Karl Rove were involved closely in the plans to replace prosecutors – as illustrated by thousands of department e-mails released to Congress.
The White House stepped back from defending Gonzales even before Sampson finished testifying.
“I’m going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said as Sampson entered his third hour before the senators. Noting that Gonzales is not scheduled to appear publicly on Capitol Hill until an April 17 hearing in front of the same Senate panel, she added: “I agree three weeks is a long time.”
Even so, President Bush “is confident that the attorney general can overcome these challenges, and he continues to have the president’s support,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
The Justice Department said Gonzales has no plans to resign. Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Gonzales has described his involvement as “never focused on specific concerns about United States attorneys as to whether or not they should be asked to resign.”