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Gonzales Chief Aide Quits After Prosecutor Firings
By Robert Schmidt
March 13, 2007

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- The chief aide to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned amid revelations that President George W. Bush's White House staff initiated the decision to fire federal prosecutors.

The Justice Department announced the resignation of Kyle Sampson, who was Gonzales's chief of staff. Sampson may be called to testify by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who are demanding to know more about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Democrats have likened the dismissals to a political purge.

"U.S. attorneys have always been above politics, and this administration has blatantly manipulated the U.S. attorney system to serve its political needs," Senator Charles Schumer of New York said at a news conference in Washington today. Schumer said Sampson's departure "does not take the heat off the attorney general. In fact, it raises the temperature."

Sampson is the first high-level official to lose his job over the firings. The House Judiciary Committee today released a number of his e-mails that describe White House involvement in the dismissals.

A Utah native, Sampson had previously worked with Gonzales when the attorney general was White House counsel. Before joining the administration, Sampson was an aide to Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican.

"Kyle Sampson has served as a key member of my team," Gonzales said in a statement. "I am very appreciative of his service, counsel and friendship during the last six years."

Gonzales canceled a trip today to New York and Massachusetts as the administration sought to contain the controversy. He is scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 p.m. Washington time.

Hearings Welcomed

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Henry Waxman, both California Democrats, said at a press briefing that they welcomed congressional hearings into the firings. They declined to call for Gonzales's resignation, saying they wanted to know more about the matter.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he will summon Gonzales, Sampson and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to testify. Leahy said he hadn't decided whether to call presidential adviser Karl Rove, who the White House said yesterday relayed complaints about some prosecutors to Miers and possibly to Gonzales.

"I want to find out exactly what happened," Leahy said. "We will have hearings and there will be subpoenas, and people will be under oath."

Snow Comment

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters traveling with Bush in Mexico today that Bush still has confidence in Gonzales.

Snow said that the White House was considering whether it should "bring in fresh blood" to replace the U.S. attorneys after Bush was re-elected in 2004. Miers put together a memo at the "dawn" of Bush's second term suggesting that the administration consider asking all 93 U.S. attorneys to resign, Snow said.

"That was quickly rejected by the Justice Department," he said.

"Nobody at the White House was involved in suggesting the firing of 93 attorneys," Snow said. "It was not a firm recommendation that you're firing everybody." He also said that Bush didn't make any "recommendation on specific individuals."

In the e-mails and other documents released today, Sampson sent Miers a "Plan for Replacing Certain United States Attorneys" dated Nov. 15, 2006. The plan called for the administration to "simultaneously" call home-state senators about the ousters.

"We'll stand by for a green light from you," Sampson wrote Miers.

`Wholesale Removal'

In a Jan 9, 2006, e-mail response, Sampson said "wholesale removal of U.S. attorneys would cause significant disruption" of the Justice Department's work. He recommended that "a limited number" of them "could be targeted for removal and replacement, mitigating the shock to the system" that an "across-the-board firing" would cause.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said the documents "raise new and troubling questions" about the firings. He said that the committee will continue to "get to the bottom of this crisis" at the Justice Department.

"At a minimum, we believe these documents show a coordinated effort, initiated by the White House, to purge every United States attorney in the country," Conyers said in a statement.

Six of the fired prosecutors testified before Congress earlier this month, some saying they were pressured by Republican lawmakers over voter fraud and public corruption investigations they were pursuing. Another said the ex-U.S. attorneys were warned by a senior Justice Department official not to speak publicly about their firings.

The department has said that most of the eight were fired for unspecified problems with their performance or for not following Bush administration policy goals.

Sampson's resignation was effective yesterday, Gonzales said.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees, chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Schmidt in Washington at rschmidt5@bloomberg.net .
Last Updated: March 13, 2007 13:54 EDT

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