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Justice Department Says Letter on Firings Inaccurate
Bloomberg
By Robert Schmidt and James Rowley
March 28, 2007

March 28 (Bloomberg) -- The Justice Department said it provided inaccurate information to members of Congress in a February letter about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

Writing today to lawmakers investigating the terminations, the agency's acting head of legislative affairs, Richard Hertling, said that "certain statements" in the Feb. 23 letter were contradicted by documents that the department provided to Congress this month. Hertling didn't specify what the misstatements were.

The Feb. 23 letter to Democratic lawmakers discussed the appointment of Timothy Griffin, a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove, to a U.S. attorney position in Arkansas. The letter said Rove had no role in the decision to appoint Griffin and that nobody "inside or outside of the administration" lobbied for Griffin's appointment.

Internal Justice Department documents show that Rove and ex- White House counsel Harriet Miers did weigh in on Griffin's appointment.

"We sincerely regret any inaccuracy," Hertling said in his letter today.

The retraction came the day before Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's ex-chief of staff, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in the firings. Sampson quit on March 12, and Gonzales said he failed to keep senior agency officials informed about the plans to oust the prosecutors.

Prepared Testimony

In a statement prepared for tomorrow's testimony, Sampson took issue with that statement by Gonzales on March 13.

"I never sought to conceal or withhold any material fact about this matter from anyone," Sampson's prepared testimony said. "Others in the department knew what I knew about the origins and timing of this enterprise."

Still, Sampson said that when Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and his deputy, William Moschella, were briefed before their congressional testimony on the firings, "none of us spoke up on those subjects." McNulty did not acknowledge White House involvement in the firings during his Feb. 6 testimony.

Sampson's statement said the prosecutors were fired for "legitimate reasons" related to their "performance in office." He said, "This is a benign rather than sinister story."

`Important' Appointment

Sampson wrote a Feb. 8 e-mail, released this month by the Justice Department, that provided the information on which the Feb. 23 letter was based. "Hertling should sign," Sampson wrote to a fellow member of Gonzales's staff.

In a Dec. 19 e-mail, Sampson wrote to a White House aide that getting the U.S. attorney job for Griffin "was important to Harriet, Karl etc."

Griffin, who was given the U.S. attorney job on an interim basis, has withdrawn from consideration for the permanent post.

Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who is leading the Senate's probe of the firings, said the Justice Department's letter makes it important for Rove and other White House officials to testify under oath about the prosecutor firings.

"The plot continues to thicken," Schumer said in a statement. "It seems the Justice Department rarely acted without the knowledge and approval of the White House."

Also today, the Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, John Conyers and Patrick Leahy, sent a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding complaining about the pace of negotiations over such testimony.

`Have Not Heard'

"When we met recently, each of us agreed to continue to talk and keep the lines of communication open," wrote Leahy, of Vermont, and Conyers, of Michigan. "Nevertheless, we have not heard from you."

Senate Judiciary Committee staff lawyers will soon begin questioning three Justice Department officials who the agency agreed could be interviewed, Schumer said.

The three are Michael Elston, chief of staff to McNulty, Michael Battle, former head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, and acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer.

A fourth official, Gonzales's aide Monica Goodling, has invoked her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to refuse to answer the panel's questions.

Leahy said his committee tomorrow "will look at the various conflicting statements that the attorney general" has made and "ask Sampson what he thinks."

The committee will test the notion that some U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn't aggressively pursue voting fraud cases against Democrats.

Leahy noted that FBI Director Robert Mueller told the panel this week that he hadn't been told by anyone at the Justice Department to pursue such cases. Mueller said he didn't hear any complaints from agents about the U.S. attorneys who were cited for failure to bring such cases.

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Schmidt in Washington at rschmidt5@bloomberg.net ; James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: March 28, 2007 19:12 EDT

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