The former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales agreed Friday to testify at a Senate inquiry next week into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week amid the furor over the dismissals, will appear Thursday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his attorney said. His appearance will mark the first congressional testimony by a Justice Department aide since the release of thousands of documents that show the firings were orchestrated, in part, by the White House.
Sampson “looks forward to answering the committee’s questions,” wrote his attorney, Brad Berenson, in a two-paragraph letter to Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
“We trust that his decision to do so will satisfy the need of the Congress to obtain information from him concerning the requested resignations of the United States attorneys,” Berenson wrote.
E-mails between the White House and the Justice Department, dating back to the weeks immediately after the 2004 presidential election, show Sampson was heavily engaged in deciding how many prosecutors would be replaced, and which ones. The Bush administration maintains the dismissals of the eight political appointees were proper.
Democrats, however, question whether the eight were selected because they were not seen as, in Sampson’s words, “loyal Bushies.”
'At the center of things'
“He was right at the center of things,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is leading the inquiry into the firings, said of Sampson. “He has said publicly that what others have said is not how it happened. ... He contradicts DOJ.”
Schumer said he hoped Sampson would provide more detail about who initiated the firings and whether they were politically motivated.
Sampson’s agreement to testify next week came a few hours after Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, summoned White House counsel Fred Fielding to Capitol Hill to discuss the dispute over whether and under what conditions Bush’s top aides will tell their stories to Congress.
The two did not delve into specific proposals for Bush’s aides, but Cornyn said he urged Fielding to release as much information related to the prosecutor firings as possible, warning that he wanted “no surprises” to emerge.
“I told him, ‘Everything you can release, please release. We need to know what the facts are,”’ Cornyn said.
Also Friday, the Justice Department said it had found additional e-mails, calendar pages and other documents about the dismissals and were working to send them to the House and Senate panels that oversee the Justice Department. It was unclear when those documents would be delivered.
Democrats are also armed with subpoenas for presidential adviser Karl Rove and other top aides, pressing the White House to allow the advisers to answer questions under oath about the firings.
A Senate panel joined the House on Thursday in authorizing subpoenas for the aides, and the White House insisted it would fight attempts to compel Rove and others to appear on camera, testifying under oath.
It was the latest chapter in an unfolding drama pitting Democrats, who have promised to use their congressional majority to end the Iraq war and scrutinize the Bush administration, against a president who is battling to protect his prerogatives and exert his influence.
Specter floated a compromise with Fielding during the meeting with Cornyn. A compromise could avert a full-blown legal confrontation and prolonged court battle.
Fielding 'listened attentively'
Specter reached out to the White House on Thursday afternoon with his proposal to allow the aides to be questioned publicly by just a limited number of lawmakers without putting them under oath.
Fielding "listened attentively and said that he had no authority to negotiate, but that he would take my suggestions to the president," Specter said.
Neither Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont nor Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the Democratic chairmen of the judiciary panels, appeared in any rush to issue the subpoenas.
"I'll issue them when we're ready," Leahy said Thursday night, adding that he wants to see more documents and await the outcome of a hearing on the matter next week.
Democrats said their action gave them a bargaining chip in negotiations with Bush. The White House has said the aides would provide only limited interviews with select lawmakers behind closed doors, without a transcript and not under oath.
"We all would like them to get off their mountain and come down and negotiate," said Schumer.
He said Friday that Specter's proposal reflects a bipartisan willingness to strike a deal with the White House on the matter.
A court clash with the executive branch over subpoenas could produce months and even years of legal wrangling, possibly delaying an opportunity for lawmakers to question Bush's top aides until after he leaves office.
In letters to Fielding on Thursday, House and Senate Judiciary Democrats said they couldn't accept Bush's conditions.
"Unfortunately, these letters show they aren't as interested in ascertaining the facts than going on a political fishing expedition," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Gonzales: 'I'm not going to resign'
Gonzales, fighting for his job amid the furor over the fired prosecutors, promised to cooperate with Congress in the inquiry. "I'm not going to resign," he told reporters Thursday after an event in St. Louis.
Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, said Gonzales has become a "lightning rod" for criticism and joined GOP lawmakers who want him out. "It would be better for the president and the department if the attorney general were to step down," Gillmor said.
Bush is standing by Gonzales and insists that the firings were appropriate. Democrats argue they were politically motivated.
Members of both parties want to know why the Justice Department fired eight well-regarded U.S. attorneys over the winter; whether politicians pressured the prosecutors to rush corruption cases; and whether the firings were punishment for the prosecutors' balking at Bush administration priorities.
Prosecutors are appointed to four-year terms by the president and can be dismissed by him at any time.
The Senate panel voted to approve subpoenas for Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and her former deputy, William Kelley. The House authorized similar subpoenas a day earlier.
Democrats object to Bush's offer, which Fielding relayed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, in large part because there would be no transcript and the testimony would not be public.
"I've had a lot of those unstructured briefings and found that I was given, in many instances, not the whole truth, nothing near the whole truth," Leahy said.