WASHINGTON—The Justice Department cannot document the reasons behind the firings of eight U.S. attorneys because the dismissals resulted from subjective judgments, not clear-cut performance problems, a former senior Justice Department official will tell Congress on Thursday.
Testimony prepared for Kyle Sampson, the official at the center of the firings, suggests that Justice Department officials considered a host of amorphous factors in deciding which U.S. attorneys would be forced out. McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of Sampson's testimony in advance of his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
His explanation is unlikely to satisfy Democrats, who suspect that at least some of the prosecutors were ousted because they were too soft on Democrats or too hard on Republicans. Lawmakers plan to press Sampson for any information that points to direct involvement by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, White House adviser Karl Rove or President Bush.
As Gonzales' chief of staff—a job he quit under pressure two weeks ago—Sampson knows perhaps better than anyone why the prosecutors were targeted for dismissal and who was behind the firings.
"I would be the first to conclude that this process was not scientific, nor was it extensively documented," Sampson said in his prepared remarks. He also will acknowledge that "reasonable and honest people can differ" over whether some of the ousted prosecutors should have been removed.
While Sampson denied in his prepared remarks that partisan politics played a role in the firings, he said he considers the distinction between performance-related issues and political failures "largely artificial."
Any fireworks at Thursday's hearing are likely to come in the question-and-answer session after Sampson's prepared remarks.
"Mr. Sampson's place, smack in the middle of it, gives a good perspective into the Department of Justice, into the White House and into the apparent failure of the firewall between the two," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a former U.S. attorney and a Judiciary Committee member.
Sampson's public testimony will put an unwanted spotlight on a Washington insider who's much more accustomed to working behind the scenes. He came to Washington to change the world, propelled by a high-energy mix of idealism and raw ambition. Now he's fighting to save his reputation.
The 37-year-old Utah native sped down the path to power at warp speed, leveraging well-placed connections that he'd acquired at Brigham Young University, the University of Chicago law school and through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In 1999, Sampson got his first Washington job from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a fellow Mormon, who assigned him to the Senate Judiciary Committee—the same panel he'll face Thursday morning.
Sampson moved to the White House after Bush's election in 2000, with help from a law school friend, Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. His duties under then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales included screening potential candidates for top legal positions, including candidates for FBI director, federal drug czar and potential Supreme Court nominees.
"I quickly found out that the secret was to first decide what you want and then find the person who fit that bill. You had to have that determined first because you'd get a flood of referrals from every senator and every politician out there," Sampson told the Deseret News for a July 2002 article about his personnel duties.
Given his background, it came as no surprise that Sampson took on the job of replacing U.S. attorneys after Bush tapped Gonzales for attorney general at the start of his second White House term.
By March 2005, Sampson was hard at work on a plan to replace prosecutors who'd fallen out of favor and replace them with "loyal Bushies." Internal Justice Department e-mails indicate that he threw himself into the task of planning the firings and a response to the anticipated political fallout.
Sampson, who repeatedly pushed for White House approval of the plan, finally received it on Dec. 4, 2006—three days before seven of the eight targeted prosecutors got their marching orders. U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins had been told to resign from his post in Arkansas months earlier to make room for a Rove protege.
"Kyle Sampson was at the center of all this," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who's directing the Senate investigation into the firings. "We are still told by the attorney general that the U.S. attorneys were fired for cause. We don't know what that cause was. We don't know why they were put on the list, when they were put on the list, who wanted them put on the list. These are really important questions."
But Schumer said he doesn't expect Sampson to point an accusing finger at Gonzales.
"The idea that there's going to be some huge smoking gun that will solve the whole thing . . . that's not going to happen in all likelihood," he said.
Friends describe Sampson as a loyal team player who got caught up in a political firestorm.
"He could have done things differently. There's no question about that," Hatch said. "My advice to him would be to tell the truth, regardless, and let the chips fall where they may."