Eight federal prosecutors were fired last year because they did not sufficiently support US President George W. Bush's priorities, but there was not a campaign to intimidate prosecutors, says a former Justice Department official who was to testify before a congressional committee yesterday.
Kyle Sampson, who resigned his post as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff earlier this month over the furor, said that he believes the standard was legitimate.
He disputed Democratic charges that the firings were a purge by intimidation and a warning to the remaining prosecutors to fall in line. Nor, he said, were the prosecutors dismissed to interfere with corruption investigations.
"To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here," Sampson said in remarks prepared for delivery yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats viewed his testimony as key to finding the answers to the political question and a second, investigative query: Did Gonzales and the Justice Department provide misleading accounts of the run-up to the firings?
The answer to the second question is yes, according to a Justice Department letter accompanying new documents released hours before Sampson's appearance.
The Justice Department admitted on Wednesday it gave senators inaccurate information about the firings and presidential political adviser Karl Rove's role in trying to secure a US attorney's post in Arkansas for one of his former aides, Tim Griffin.
Justice officials acknowledged that a Feb. 23 letter to four Democratic senators erred in asserting that the department was not aware of any role Rove played in the decision to appoint Griffin to replace US Attorney Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said that certain statements in last month's letter to Democratic lawmakers appeared to be "contradicted by department documents included in our production."
That admission, only hours before Sampson's televised testimony, took some of the sting out of Democrats' key pieces of evidence that the administration had misled Congress.
Still, Sampson provided plenty of fodder. He acknowledged planning the firings as much as two years ago with the considered, collective judgment of a number of senior Justice Department officials.
However, he denied that the firings were improper, and he spoke dismissively of Democrats' condemnation of what they call political pressure in the firings.
``The distinction between `political' and `performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial,'' he said. ``A US attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful.''
Sampson maintained that adherence to the priorities of the president and attorney general was a legitimate standard.