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Attorney firings were proper, former aide says

Story Highlights

NEW: Decision merely poorly explained, Kyle Sampson says
• Political performance part of appointed attorneys' jobs, he says
• Comments are part of testimony to be given Thursday in Senate
• Justice Department admits giving Senators bad information
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys in December was "properly made but poorly explained," a former top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will tell a Senate committee Thursday.

In a written statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kyle Sampson says none of the prosecutors were sacked "for an improper reason," such as to influence an ongoing investigation.

But he says the process -- which has led to a firestorm on Capitol Hill and a standoff over the testimony of White House aides -- was "badly mishandled." (Read the full statement - PDF)

"The decisions to seek the resignations of a handful of U.S. attorneys were properly made, but poorly explained," he states. "This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be indisposed to accept it. But it is the truth as I observed and experienced it."

Sampson was Gonzales' chief of staff until mid-March, when he resigned over the firings. Gonzales has said his former aide directed the evaluation process that led to the firings and that his failure to share information about the decisions resulted in Congress getting "incomplete" explanations. (Who is Sampson?)

In his statement, Sampson says he does not believe he withheld information or intentionally misled anyone: "The mistakes I made were made honestly and in good faith."

The December firings have raised questions about the role Gonzales and White House officials played in the shakeup and led to a standoff between Congress and President Bush over the testimony of White House aides.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and are routinely replaced when a new president takes office. But the Justice Department provoked an outcry from the fired lawyers and sparked allegations of political influence on pending investigations when it initially described the shakeup as "performance-related." (View a timeline of the firing of the U.S. attorneys)

Justice later said the appointees had failed to support Bush administration priorities such as immigration enforcement or the death penalty, but admitted one was removed so a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove could get the post.

The White House later said that presidential aides had discussed replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys early in Bush's second term, but eventually settled on just eight.

In his statement, Sampson says any distinction between performance-related and political reasons is "largely artificial."

"A U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective, either because he or she has alienated the leadership of the department in Washington or cannot work constructively with law enforcement or other governmental constituencies in the district important to effective leadership of the office, is unsuccessful," he says.

The department admitted Wednesday that previous statements to Congress about the firings "are contradicted" by documents released in the past two weeks regarding Rove's involvement in the matter.

On Monday, Gonzales adviser Monica Goodling said she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than appear before congressional committees. (Watch why Goodling took the Fifth Video)

Though her lawyers argued that her testimony in a "politically charged" inquiry posed legal peril, they also said another Justice official has blamed Goodling and others for withholding "pertinent facts" before he made statements to Congress.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters Wednesday that Thursday's hearing was aimed at finding out "exactly what happened" from Sampson.

"He was there for every single part of it. He was in all the meetings with the attorney general. He'd see him several times a day," said Leahy, D-Vermont. "He was the liaison with the White House. To what extent were questions being raised by the White House? Which discussions was he in on, and what was said by whom?"

Leahy and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, played down the chances that Sampson would reveal any "smoking gun," but said they wanted to know why the Justice Department's explanations have shifted.

"That could just be plain sloppiness, or it could have been intended to be misleading," Leahy said. "I think we need to find out what it is."

Added Schumer, "We'll see how his testimony will square with other DOJ witnesses we're starting to hear from. Our staffs will start talking to them shortly."

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.


story.sampson.file.jpg

Kyle Sampson, seen in a file photo, is set to testify before a Senate panel Thursday about the firings of U.S. attorneys.

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