Sampson Returns to Hill as Star Witness

Posted March 26, 2007 at 6:33pm

To his friends from his time as a young Capitol Hill staffer, Kyle Sampson was a straight-shooting Mormon who worked hard and played by the rules.

They don’t recognize the portrait of Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, now being drawn in the media as the Machiavellian orchestrator of the ouster of eight U.S. attorneys that has created a Washington furor.

Because of the scandal, the House on Monday night was expected to pass under suspension of the rules a bill similar to Senate-passed legislation that restricts the White House authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys. The House bill is a little stricter than the Senate version in that it requires the president to appoint U.S. attorneys exclusively in the manner set forth in the bill.

But new legislation is not likely to affect Sampson’s fate as he prepares to testify — voluntarily — Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Unlike Sampson, Monica Goodling, the White House liaison and Gonzales’ counsel, will invoke the Fifth Amendment rather than testify before the Judiciary Committee. Her attorney, John Dowd of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, cited the “hostile” Congressional environment where opinions already have been formed.

Friends of Sampson believe one thing: He is a fall guy for the Justice Department’s and administration’s bumbling on why the federal prosecutors were fired. Officials claim it was because of their poor performance, but Senate Democrats spearheading an aggressive probe say the reasons were more political.

Sampson resigned after Justice released a deluge of e-mails that portrayed him as behind the effort to rate and oust the U.S. attorneys. Gonzales blamed him for concealing information from other Justice Department officials who then gave misleading testimony to Congress. But e-mails released Friday appear to contradict Gonzales’ statements by placing him in at least one meeting where the matter was discussed after the November elections.

“As far as authority, he was loyal,” said Makan Delrahim, Sampson’s former boss on the Judiciary Committee. “You get a phone call or e-mail from the counsel to the president about firing all U.S. attorneys and you take your order.”

“There was nothing nefarious from those e-mails about what he did. If anything, he kept the White House counsel’s office from unwittingly firing 93 U.S. attorneys wholesale,” Delrahim added.

A Utah native and Mormon, Sampson attended Brigham Young University before landing at the University of Chicago Law School. He clerked for the 4th U.S. circuit court of appeals and worked at the Salt Lake City law firm of Parr Waddoups Brown Gee & Loveless before arriving on the Hill.

In 1999, Sampson snagged a post as a low-level counsel on the Judiciary Committee for then-Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

He worked in the civil unit, mainly on bankruptcy reform, before moving on to help with judicial nominations.

His colleagues at the time remember someone smart and loyal who was not one to take risks.

“I always found Kyle to be as straight an arrow as you can be,” said one former staffer. “You never saw him get in a mad cussing fit with anybody.

“You never saw him backstab anybody to get the promotion or the raise,” he added. “He was low-key and did his job.”

That image is at odds with the aggressive, inside man portrayed in the e-mails released recently by Justice.

In them, Sampson corresponds regularly with former White House counsel Harriet Miers and outlines a detailed plan for firing the U.S. attorneys as well as preventing anticipated political fallout.

Sampson spent a relatively short period of time on the Hill from 1999 to 2001 and then left to work on President Bush’s transition team, helping to select nominees for Justice Department jobs or judgeships.

“We always thought he did an outstanding job trying to pick people based on their credentials as opposed to just political picking,” said one former staffer who worked with Sampson at the time.

“I have never seen or heard, before the scandal, of anybody that would question Kyle’s integrity or commitment,” this former staffer added.

After Bush’s election, Sampson joined the White House staff and actually helped select U.S. attorneys. In 2003, he joined the Justice Department where he was an adviser to former Attorney General John Ashcroft and was promoted to Gonzales’ chief of staff in September 2005.

One episode revealed by the e-mails is telling of Sampson’s ambition, however. After the plan to oust a handful of U.S. attorneys was hatched, Sampson began gunning for the job of Utah prosecutor Paul Warner, with the backing of Gonzales and other senior White House officials.

But the plan was rebuffed by Sampson’s old employer, Hatch, who preferred another candidate who ultimately got the job.