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Sampson to Testify on Fired Prosecutors

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today, a man deeply involved in the Justice Department scandal tells his story. Former Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson was involved in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. So far, he is the only person to lose his own job as a result.

NPR's Ari Shapiro will be at the hearing later this morning. He's covering the story. And Ari, what was Sampson's role in all of this?

ARI SHAPIRO: He was a point person. He was steering the ship on the dismissal of these eight U.S. attorneys. According to his testimony, over the course of about two years he orchestrated this. Other Justice Department officials were in the know, but Sampson was the one. Based on input from them, the White House adding and subtracting names to the list. And it was Sampson's e-mails that eventually came out that really led this scandal to explode and to call for people to call on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.

INSKEEP: You said according to his testimony, you're already hearing what he's going to say later today?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We have bits and pieces of it. Apparently he's going to say that the eight fired prosecutors were let go because they did not support the president's priorities. He's going to defend the decision to fire these people but apologize for the way that the firings were handled and explained.

And he's basically going to try to do some damage control for the way the scandal has exploded in the last few weeks.

INSKEEP: Trying to figure this out, the administration initially said these prosecutors were fired for performance reasons, poor performance. That had been refuted. The allegation was they were actually fired for political reasons. If you say they did not support the president's priorities, if Sampson says that, where does that fall on that scale?

SHAPIRO: Well, Sampson says there's no distinction between political and performance-related reasons. He's going to say, quote, "the distinction between political and performance related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial."

So when the attorney general told Congress I would never fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons, you know, I'm not sure where exactly it leaves that testimony. But Sampson is going to say there really is no difference here between the two.

INSKEEP: Now, we have to assume there will also be questions about this. The Justice Department acknowledging again last night that it provided incorrect information to Congress about what happened?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In a February 23rd letter to a group of senators, the Justice Department said it was not aware of White House political adviser Karl Rove playing any role in the firings or in the replacements. Specifically in the U.S. attorney position in Arkansas, where a former Rove assistant was given the new U.S. attorney position after the old one was dismissed.

Well, that letter that the Justice Department sent on February 23rd was contradicted by e-mails that Kyle Sampson, whose going to testify today, sent a couple of weeks earlier, saying that this was very important to Karl, Harriet, et cetera, meaning, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the White House counsel at that time.

INSKEEP: Which is going to get into another question that I imagine will be on people's minds today. Democrats are not just looking at Kyle Sampson, looking to make Kyle Sampson look bad. They want to know who else was involved here and who else should be looked at to lose their job?

SHAPIRO: Right. They see this as one piece of a large puzzle. Charles Schumer, the senator from New York, the Democrat whose subcommittee has been leading this investigation, said he doesn't expect any smoking gun to come out of today's hearing. But he says if you want to know what went on, Kyle Sampson is a good place to start.

They have other Justice Department officials that they're interviewing privately and may call for public testimony before Congress like this testimony that we're going to hear today. They see this as one piece of a growing puzzle.

The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Patrick Leahy, said they really just want to know who knew what when in this scandal. Yesterday, his quote was, "you can only say so what I really meant to say was three, four, five, or six times before people tend not to believe it."

INSKEEP: Okay, Ari. Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice reporter, Ari Shapiro, who will be covering the hearing later today when Kyle Sampson testifies before Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.