Eight federal prosecutors were fired last year because they did not sufficiently support President Bush's priorities, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' former chief of staff says in remarks prepared for delivery Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The distinction between 'political' and 'performance-related' reasons for removing a United States attorney is, in my view, largely artificial," Kyle Sampson, who quit during the furor over the firings, said in testimony for his appearance Thursday, obtained by The Associated Press.
"A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful," he added.
Democrats have described the firings as an "intimidation by purge" and a warning to remaining U.S. attorneys to fall in line with Bush's priorities. Political pressure, Democrats say, can skew the judgment of prosecutors when deciding whom to investigate and which indictments to pursue.
Sampson maintained that adherence to the president's and attorney general's priorities is a legitimate standard. He strongly denied Democrats' allegations that some of the prosecutors were dismissed for pursuing Republicans too much and Democrats not enough in corruption cases.
"To my knowledge, nothing of the sort occurred here," Sampson said in the document. "As presidential appointees, U.S. attorneys serve at the 'pleasure of the president' and may be asked to resign for almost any reason, with no public or private explanation."
Sampson said inconsistencies in the department's account of the firings were innocent mistakes.
"The decisions to seek the resignations of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made but poorly explained," Sampson said in the conclusion of his statement. "This is a benign, rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be indisposed to accept it."
Democrats confirmed that, saying that putting political pressure on federal prosecutors corrupts their decision-making.
Sampson's testimony Thursday is voluntary, although the committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, told reporters he has kept a signed subpoena under lock and key in case Gonzales' chief of staff should back out.
There was no indication of that happening. In his remarks, Sampson said he was pleased to appear and pledged to stay as long as necessary.
Nothing, not even Gonzales' resignation, will stop the investigation, Leahy said Wednesday.
"In case anybody's thinking of shortchanging it that way, I have a message for them: We'll finish this investigation before we'll have any confirmation hearings for a new attorney general," said Leahy. "I want to know what the facts were."