Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Justice aide resigns over prosecutor firings

By James Vicini 53 minutes ago

A top aide to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has resigned, the Justice Department said on Tuesday, the latest fallout from the firing of federal prosecutors that has embarrassed the Bush administration and prompted calls for Gonzales to step down.

Lawmakers are investigating whether the dismissal last year of eight prosecutors, some of whom had been criticized by Republicans, was a politically motivated interference in federal prosecutions by the White House.

The Justice Department said Kyle Sampson, chief of staff to Gonzales, had resigned, effective immediately. A department official said Sampson had stepped down because of his role in the firings.

Major U.S. newspapers reported on Tuesday that the White House had suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys, but approved the idea of dismissing a smaller group.

The eight prosecutors were fired after President George W. Bush spoke to Gonzales about complaints that some of them were not energetically pursuing voter-fraud investigations, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The Washington Post said Sampson resigned after acknowledging he did not tell other Justice Department officials about the extent of his communications with the White House. His omission led Justice officials to provide incomplete information to Congress, it said.

Democrats in Congress expressed outrage.

"The White House and the attorney general have dodged Congress's questions and ducked accountability," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record), the Judiciary Committee chairman.

"I am outraged that the attorney general was less than forthcoming with the Senate while under oath," the Vermont Democrat said.

Gonzales appeared before Leahy's panel earlier this year and said politics was not a factor in the dismissals.

E-mails and internal documents indicated that then-White House counsel Harriet Miers suggested to Sampson in February 2005 that all prosecutors be dismissed and replaced, the Post said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in Merida, Mexico, that Bush made "no recommendations on specific individuals."


Snow said it was Miers who questioned whether to bring in "fresh blood" after four years in office.

Although most of the ousted prosecutors had received positive job reviews, the Justice Department said they were largely dismissed because of employment-related matters or policy differences.

Republicans in several states, including some where the party suffered narrow losses to Democrats, had complained about alleged voter registration fraud in the 2004 elections.

Gonzales was appointed attorney-general in early 2005 after serving as White House counsel by Bush, with whom he had worked closely for many years in their home state of Texas. Sampson had also worked for the White House after Bush's 2000 election, overseeing legal appointments in the administration.

Over the weekend, top Democrats said Gonzales should resign.

Sen. Charles Schumer (news, bio, voting record) of New York, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, renewed his call for Gonzales to step down and urged Bush to step up and "clarify his role in this whole matter."

"The cloud over Justice Department is getting darker and darker, and only the president can dispel it," Schumer said.

"Today's resignations by his chief of staff does not take the heat off the attorney general, it raises the temperature," he added.

Gonzales, who was White House counsel during Bush's first four years in office, did not mention the firing of the prosecutors in a statement.

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

(Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro and Matt Spetalnick)

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