WASHINGTON -- Despite earlier denials, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was deeply involved in discussions that led to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, his former chief of staff testified yesterday.
Kyle Sampson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the attorney general had participated in "at least five" meetings on the subject over the course of more than two years and had other encounters in which the "strengths and weaknesses" of individual prosecutors were discussed.
"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 said.
Gonzales and Harriet E. Miers, then White House counsel, made the final decision on whether to fire the eight U.S. attorneys last year, he testified.
Sampson also said Gonzales attended a meeting on the issue on Nov. 27, 10 days before seven of the prosecutors were fired.
"He approved both the list, and going forward," Sampson said.
Sampson's testimony could be a major blow to Gonzales, who is struggling to hold on to his job in the face of growing criticism from Capitol Hill.
Sampson also offered new disclosures about how he and a small band of young lawyers at the Justice Department and the White House decided which U.S. attorneys should be replaced.
In one revelation that seemed to startle some senators, Sampson described how he once proposed replacing the U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, who at the time was investigating White House political strategist Karl Rove and others for exposing the identity of a covert CIA operative. Sampson said he quickly withdrew the suggestion, having realized it was "inappropriate."
Sampson also disclosed that one of the fired U.S. attorneys, David Iglesias of New Mexico, was not pegged for dismissal until last October, just as two Republican members of Congress were inquiring about his handling of a public corruption investigation of state Democrats.
Sampson denied that any of the firings were for improper reasons, but he said he believed politics in the broadest sense was a legitimate reason for replacing U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by the president.
"The decisions to seek the resignation of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained," he testified. "This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be disposed not to accept it, but it's the truth as I observed it and experienced it."
Sampson's behind-the-scenes look into the sometimes haphazard way in which the administration came to target the eight prosecutors left some lawmakers incensed. He testified that "there really was no documentation of this" other than "a chart and notes that I would dump into my lower-right desk drawer."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked, incredulously: "So this was a project you were in charge of? This was a project that lasted for two years? This was a project that would end the careers of eight United States attorneys, and neither you nor anybody reporting to you kept a specific file in your office about it?"
Sampson's testimony concerning Gonzales raised more doubts in Congress about the attorney general's future.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, said Gonzales "has many questions to answer."
The Justice Department said Gonzales had no plans to resign.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Dana Perino said: "I'm going to have to let the attorney general speak for himself."
Gonzales is not scheduled to visit Congress until April 17, a period, she acknowledged, that leaves the issue hanging longer than the White House would like. She said the president "has confidence in the attorney general."
Gonzales told reporters March 13 that he was "not involved in any discussion" about the firings. But the Justice Department later released documents showing that he had participated in a meeting Nov. 27 about the firings, 10 days before they were carried out.
"So he was involved in discussions, contrary to the statement he made in his news conference on March 13?" asked Specter, the ranking panel member.
"I believe, yes, sir," Sampson replied.
Under questioning from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, Sampson said he and Gonzales had discussed the issue as long ago as January 2005. He said he did not recall the number of times he met with Gonzales about the issue, but said, "I spoke with him every day, so I think at least five."
In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Gonzales amended his initial statements, acknowledging that he had attended the Nov. 27 meeting, but he and his aides left the impression that he was not involved in deciding which individual attorneys should be fired.
Schumer asked about a statement by Justice Department public affairs director Tasia Scolinos last week that Gonzales had not participated in the selection of U.S. attorneys to be fired.
"Was that an accurate statement?" Schumer asked.
"I don't think that's an accurate statement," Sampson replied.
Sampson said none of the firings was motivated by a desire to affect public corruption cases the targeted U.S. attorneys were pursuing, as some Democrats have alleged.
On that point, committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, went through a series of Sampson's e-mails to the White House concerning New Mexico prosecutor Iglesias. In five memos between March 2005 and October 2006, Sampson did not include Iglesias on a list of those to be fired. But Nov. 7, Iglesias' name was included.
Leahy asked: Was it because of complaints that he was moving too slowly on a political corruption case involving Democrats in New Mexico? No, Sampson said, it had more to do with concern that Rove had about voting-fraud cases.
But he added that others in the Justice Department and the White House had earlier viewed Iglesias as someone they wanted to keep, especially because he is Hispanic.
Sampson also was questioned about an e-mail he sent last May citing a "real problem" with U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego. The e-mail was sent the day after her office had notified the Justice Department that it was planning to conduct a search of the office of a CIA executive who was tied to an investigation relating to convicted GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California.
Sampson testified that "the real problem" in his mind was that Lam was not producing enough immigration cases at a time when the department was under pressure from House Republicans for not prosecuting immigration fraud more aggressively.
Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.