Question Time in the Attorney Firings

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Stefan Zaklin / EPA

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) looks on as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT ) holds a copy of an e-mail from Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday March 20, 2007.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' future hangs in the balance as his recently-resigned Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson sits down in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Thursday morning in the Hart Office Building. Sampson is the man at the center of the U.S. attorney scandal, the one person who, more than any other, can answer why the eight prosecutors were fired, whether there was any improper political influence from the White House over the process, and just how involved Gonzales was in the whole affair. Gonzales has claimed only passing knowledge of the firings; a slip or contradiction by Sampson could do the embattled AG in, given the quickly fading support he has among Republican Senators.

Senate Democratic investigators worked through the weekend to prepare their lines of questioning for the Sampson testimony, poring over his and Gonzales' written and oral responses to their prior requests for information and comparing them with the thousands of e-mails released by the White House and Justice department relating to the firings. Committee chairman Patrick Leahy and New York Senator Charles Schumer have taken the lead on the investigation and are expected to carry the majority of the attack on Sampson, with freshman Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, himself a former U.S. Attorney, playing a supporting role.

Sampson and his top-flight lawyer, Brad Berenson, sent through his prepared testimony Wednesday, in accordance with Judiciary Committee rules. In them, Sampson says the distinction between firing U.S. attorney's for "political" or "performance-related" reasons is "largely artificial," according to The Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the remarks. "A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful," Sampson says, according to the AP. But Samspon also denies that

any of the U.S. Attorneys were fired because they were pursuing politically related cases. "To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here," he says.

Leahy and Schumer held a briefing for reporters Wednesday afternoon after reviewing Sampson's testimony and said there were no smoking guns expected Thursday. But they will press Sampson on inconsistencies between Gonzales's assertions of ignorance and documents produced by the Justice Department that show the Attorney General approved the firings and was involved in at least some of the deliberations.

Sampson will also directly address in his testimony the question of White House involvement. Karl Rove, Bush's closest advisor, is as much a target of Democratic interest as Gonzales is, and already it appears Sampson may walk back some of the assertions the Justice Department made regarding Rove's ignorance of the firings. In a surprising move Wednesday, the Justice Department released a new batch of over 200 documents and a correction. Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Hertling said in a letter to the Senate Democratic leadership and top Judiciary committee Senators today that parts of a Feb. 23 response had been "contradicted" by documents later released by the Department. The Feb. 23 letter asserts that Rove had no knowledge of efforts to place his former deputy Tim Griffin as U.S. attorney in Arkansas, among other assertions. The documents, including an e-mail from Sampson, show Rove supported putting Griffin in place.

Democratic investigators also want to use the hearing to question the use of non-White House e-mail accounts. A watchdog organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has said they suspect key players at the White House used outside accounts, including accounts at the Republican National Committee, to circumvent record-keeping required by law. Senate

investigators have pulled out one e-mail from the thousands provided by Justice wherein a staffer for Senate Republican Pete Domenici e-mails a Rove Deputy, Scott Jennings, the White House legislative liason, Candida Wolff, and someone identified only by their e-mail address The content of the e-mail itself is non-controversial--it refers to Domenici's suggestions for a replacement U.S. Attorney, standard practice in such appointments. But inclusion of the outside e-mail account opens the door for questioning Sampson on the use of such accounts by the White House and other administration officials.