- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

M??|er chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday said that the White House was aware of what he called his “bad idea” to routinely use the USA Patriot Act to circumvent Senate confirmation of federal prosecutors, but did not act on it.

However, on the matter of the fired federal prosecutors, Democratic senators failed to unearth any bombshells from D. Kyle Sampson, during nearly seven hours of sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. One Republican senator on the panel said that after the long day of questioning, Democrats had found no smoking gun on the substantive issues.

“It’s a waste of time. They have no evidence, just innuendo. They’re just looking for anything they can use to hurt the White House,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

Mr. Sampson, however, did say that Mr. Gonzales has made inaccurate public statements in explaining the firings, prompting Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, to say that Mr. Gonzales has “many questions to answer.”

Mr. Sampson conceded that he had acted improperly in recommending that the Justice Department use an obscure clause in the Patriot Act — inserted during the law’s 2006 renewal — to bypass Senate confirmation of U.S. attorneys.

“That was a bad idea,” he said. “I did advocate that at different times.”

The strategy was used once — to appoint J. Timothy Griffin, an associate of presidential adviser Karl Rove, to U.S. attorney in Arkansas’ Eastern District, to replace Bud Cummins. However, Mr. Sampson defended Mr. Gonzales by saying that the attorney general “rejected” the idea.

“He thought it was a bad idea, and he was right,” Mr. Sampson said.

Mr. Sampson also said that he discussed the idea with White House staff, but that former White House counsel Harriet Miers neither “adopted or rejected” the plan.

Mr. Specter, the panel’s ranking Republican, pressed Mr. Sampson about the appropriateness of the strategy, which Mr. Sampson outlined in a Dec. 19 e-mail to Christopher G. Oprison in the Miss Miers’ office.

“It really wasn’t in good faith at all,” Mr. Specter said.

“That wouldn’t have been in good faith,” Mr. Sampson said.

Congress last week voted, by overwhelming margins in both chambers, to remove from the Patriot Act the attorney general’s power to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The White House has not issued any veto threats on the change.

Mr. Sampson, who was called to testify about his role in the dismissal of Mr. Cummins and seven other federal prosecutors, said he wished he could “do it all over again.” However, he defended the firings themselves, saying they were “properly made but poorly explained.”

Mr. Sampson contradicted public statements made by Mr. Gonzales at a March 13 press conference, where the attorney general had said he “was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”

“I don’t think the attorney general’s statement that he was not involved in any discussions about U.S. attorney removals is accurate,” Mr. Sampson said.

Mr. Sampson said he had at least five discussions with Mr. Gonzales about the matter, as early as 2005. E-mails released last week also showed that Mr. Gonzales presided over a Nov. 26 meeting where the firings were finalized, about 10 days before they were carried out.

The Justice Department said Mr. Gonzales had retracted the contradictory statements.

“The attorney general recently clarified his statements from a March 13 press conference, as Mr. Sampson stated during the testimony,” Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said. “The attorney general explained — consistent with Mr. Sampson’s testimony today — in an interview on March 14 that he directed Mr. Sampson to lead the evaluation process, was kept aware of some conversations during the process, and that he approved the recommendations to seek the resignations of select U.S. attorneys.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Gonzales’ “credibility … has been more or less shattered.”

Mr. Specter said that “there is a real question as to whether he was acting in a competent way as attorney general.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she would “have to let the attorney general speak for himself” and that Mr. Gonzales may need to meet with senators to answer questions before his next scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill, which is set for April 17.

“I agree, three weeks is a long time,” she said.

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