WASHINGTON—The Justice Department on Wednesday apologized to Congress for inaccuracies in a February letter that suggested that White House political adviser Karl Rove wasn't involved in the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys.
"We sincerely regret any inaccuracy," said the letter from acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling to Senate Democrats. It topped a 202-page release of new documents that was turned over for a congressional inquiry into the firings of eight top federal prosecutors last year.
The admission came on the eve of congressional testimony by Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Sampson is expected to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday morning that the department mishandled the controversy and turned it into an "ugly, undignified spectacle" through "an unfortunate combination of poor judgments, poor word choices and poor communication and preparation," according to his prepared testimony.
In the letter to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Hertling said that department documents turned over to Congress in the last several weeks "contradicted" his Feb. 23 letter to several Senate Democrats.
Hertling didn't spell out what statements in that letter were contradictory or inaccurate. Democrats said Wednesday that they assumed that he was referring to Rove's involvement in the hiring of Arkansas interim U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin.
In the February letter, Hertling said the Justice Department was "not aware of Karl Rove playing any role" in the decision to appoint Griffin. He also said that the department was "not aware of anyone lobbying for Mr. Griffin's appointment."
Hertling also wrote that the department didn't fire any prosecutors in order to interfere with public corruption cases or as an act of political retaliation.
Subsequent documents show that both Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers backed Griffin's appointment. In one e-mail last year, Sampson wrote to a colleague, "I know that getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc." To find him a spot, the Justice Department removed U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins, also a Bush administration appointee.
Democrats weren't placated by the apology. Schumer said the acknowledgement only intensified the need for Rove and other White House officials to testify publicly, something the White House has refused to go along with.
An ousted prosecutor accused Republicans Wednesday of hitting a new "level of desperation" after a GOP activist launched a radio ad that attacked the prosecutor's track record and defended his firing.
The one-minute spot criticizing former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was paid for by New Mexicans for Honest Courts, whose Web site lists Linda Chavez Krumland as its chairwoman. Krumland couldn't be reached for comment.
"I've never heard of an attack on an unemployed political appointee who's not running for office," Iglesias said. Iglesias also denied speculation floated by some Republicans in his state that he's speaking out in preparation for a run for office.
The Justice Department initially said that the attorneys' firings were performance-related. Officials have since backed away from that stance, saying there had been policy disagreements with some of them, as well as some performance concerns.
Sampson's prepared testimony says: "The distinction between `political' and `performance-related' reasons for removing a United States Attorney is, in my view, largely artificial."
But most of the ousted prosecutors had received positive reviews, and all said that their forced resignations came without explanation.
While U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, Democrats say they're concerned that the firings may have been motivated by a desire to punish independent prosecutors who investigated Republicans for corruption or declined to charge Democrats.
Two of the Republican-appointed fired prosecutors have themselves alleged that their ousters were payback for decisions that angered Republican political activists.