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Key witness in attorney scandal 'under attack,' friends say

Story Highlights

• Kyle Sampson's former colleague: "Kyle feels his integrity is under attack"
• Close friend: "This is political charade, political blood sport"
• Gonzales' ex-aide to reveal his side of the story at Senate hearing
• Congress looking into whether attorney firings were politically motivated
By Thom Patterson
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(CNN) -- As senators prepared to grill Kyle Sampson on Thursday about the fired U.S. attorneys scandal, friends described the ex-aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as concerned, embattled and thrust into an arena of "political blood sport."

Sampson, 37, a key figure in the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, resigned March 12 as the attorney general's chief of staff amid calls for Gonzales to step down.

Justice officials have said the attorneys were fired based on their performance, but some members of Congress suspect the firings were politically motivated and hope Sampson will shed light on the decision process. (Watch a fired attorney describe how stunned he was by a congressional phone call Video)

E-mail released to Congress after Sampson's departure seemed to contradict the Justice Department's characterization of the firings as a "personnel matter."

Early in President Bush's second term, then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers suggested firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, an idea that Gonzales says he opposed. He said he asked Sampson to evaluate the attorneys and determine "where we could do better." Sampson came back with the list of names of the eight fired attorneys, according to Gonzales. (Read about e-mails from Sampson laying out his plan)

Sampson "resigned because he felt like he let the attorney general down as chief of staff," said Mark Corallo, Sampson's friend and former Justice Department colleague. "He thought that perhaps his leaving would take the heat off the attorney general and the department."

But that didn't happen, and now friends and former colleagues said they expect Sampson's Capitol Hill testimony to defend the Bush administration and to reveal for the first time his version of events. (Read more about Sampson's testimony on Thursday)

A married father of three young children, Sampson is a bishop at his Mormon church in northern Virginia and has served as counsel both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

Friends and colleagues paint a portrait of Sampson as a deeply religious family man with a sense of humor who often remained cool and calm despite a Justice Department that Corallo said "devours people."

As Justice communications director from 2002 to 2005, Corallo spent long hours traveling with Sampson on official trips. "It's unwarranted. It's unfair. He did nothing wrong, he did everything right. He did everything he was supposed to do."

Before Gonzales' arrival at Justice, Sampson served as counselor to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft's former chief of staff David Ayres thinks Sampson is "concerned about his family, his reputation."

Defenders have stressed there is no evidence any laws have been broken and that all U.S. attorneys "serve at the pleasure of the president" and can be dismissed at any time.

'A scandal that shouldn't be'

The situation --- which Corallo called "a scandal that shouldn't be a scandal" -- has prompted frustration inside Sampson's inner circle. Sampson's plight has soured friends' views on Washington politics and Sampson himself finds his circumstances "troubling," said William Nixon, a close friend for about 10 years.

"There's no bombshell --- neither regulatory nor spectacular -- simply because no law has been violated," said Nixon, a public and government relations executive who's been in close contact with Simpson after his resignation.

"This is political charade, political blood sport," Nixon said. "Suddenly your integrity, your reputation, your ability to get your next job -- everything -- hinges on perception in Washington. And how Kyle manages this is going to make all the difference."

'Fall guy?'

Nixon said Sampson won't act as an administration "fall guy, because I don't think there's anything to fall for. I think that Congress is going to try to milk this for political gain going into 2008."

Sampson's former law school colleague and Washington attorney Noel Francisco believes his longtime friend wants to get the truth out. "If the truth means he takes the fall, so be it," said Francisco, who also worked with Sampson at the White House and at Justice. "But I don't think that his decision on what to say will turn on that. It will turn on his commitment to tell the truth and exactly what happened."

"Anything Kyle did that could be construed as a mistake -- would be an innocent mistake," said Corallo. "Contemplating the removal of a U.S. attorney is something that a chief of staff to the A.G. should be doing. They should be looking at performance. They should be seeing which U.S. attorneys might need to move on. There's nothing wrong with that."

Nixon said: "Anybody who's watching what's going on realizes this is politically motivated." He said it was "tragic" that Sampson is "being hauled up there for doing exactly what he was supposed to do."

Before his time at the Justice Department, Sampson served in the White House counsel's office. Before that, he was counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee under then-chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Sampson's Mormon roots lead back to his birth in Utah. Later his parents moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he grew up.

Like many followers of his faith, Sampson served two years as a volunteer, helping Southeast Asian immigrants living in Minnesota. He returned to Utah to attend college at Brigham Young University in Provo, where he met his wife Noelle. The Sampsons have three children; a daughter, 11, and sons ages 7 and 5.

"Kyle, while he's a man of great spirit, he's not so rigid and dogmatic that he's a zealot," Nixon said. "On the other hand he's extremely thoughtful and he's an extremely spiritual person. He has great faith in a loving God and he is making his decisions based on that foundation."

Nixon said he believes his friend will get through this. "Will he be bruised? Yes. Will there be repercussions in his legal career? I don't know. I hope not."


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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