Story Highlights• Justice Department says testimony consistent with Gonzales statements
• Deal reached on testimony by Justice Department officials on firings
• Ex-aide contradicts Gonzales statement about involvement in firings
• Schumer: Gonzales' credibility "has been more or less shattered"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was wrong when he said he was not involved in discussions about the firings of U.S. attorneys, his former top aide testified Thursday.
Former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson told senators his boss took part in the process from early 2005, well before the eight prosecutors were dismissed in 2006.
Gonzales "and I had discussions about it during the thinking phase of the process," Sampson testified. "Then after the sort of more final phase of the process in the fall of 2006 began, we discussed it." (Watch Sampson defend the attorney firings )
The testimony appeared to contradict statements Gonzales made during a March 13 news conference. "So far as I knew, my chief of staff was involved in the process of determining who were the weak performers," Gonzales said. He said he was "not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on."
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the panel's leading Democrats in the investigation, said, "The credibility of the attorney general on this issue has been more or less shattered."
However, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said Sampson's testimony was consistent with Gonzales' account of his involvement in the firings.
Gonzales said "he directed Mr. Sampson to lead the evaluation process, was kept aware of some conversations during the process, and that he approved the recommendations to seek the resignations of select U.S. attorneys," Roehrkasse said in a statement.
Sampson told the committee the attorney general asked him "to make sure that the process was appropriate, that I was consulting with the deputy attorney general and others in developing the list. And then ultimately he approved both the list and the notion of going forward and asking for these resignations."
Sampson also testified that Gonzales attended a meeting about the firings on November 27, 2006, which was 10 days before seven of the attorneys were dismissed.
Gonzales also was wrong, Sampson told senators, when the attorney general said other Justice Department officials had not been briefed about the firings when they appeared before Congress.
In addition, Sampson testified that he had no knowledge that the firings were connected to ongoing corruption cases. "To my knowledge, no U.S. attorney was asked to resign for the purpose of influencing a particular case for a particular reason," Sampson said.
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.
During his opening statement, Sampson said the decision about the firings were "properly made but poorly explained." He said 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)
"This is a benign rather than sinister story, and I know that some may be indisposed to accept it," Sampson said. "But it is the truth as I observed and experienced it."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused the Bush administration of "a series of shifting explanations, excuses, lack of accountability or even acknowledgment of the seriousness of this matter."
Asked to comment about the day's testimony, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that "the president is confident the attorney general can overcome these challenges."
Sampson was Gonzales' chief of staff until mid-March, when he resigned over the firings. Gonzales has said that 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?)
CIA leak prosecutor proposed for firing
According to Sampson, at one of his meetings with then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley, he mentioned that federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago might be added to the list of those to be axed.
Sampson said he threw the name out to gauge reaction.
After raising the issue, Sampson said he immediately regretted it.
"They looked at me like I'd said something totally inappropriate, and I had."
Fitzgerald prosecuted Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was found guilty in early March of perjury, obstruction and lying to federal agents investigating the 2003 disclosure of a CIA agent's identity.
Asked later if Rove had anything to do with his tossing Fitzgerald's name out, Sampson replied, "I don't think that happened."
Deal on House testimony announced
A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Michigan, said the committee has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that will make available seven Justice Department officials for transcribed interviews about the process used in firing eight U.S. attorneys.
The officials will be interviewed behind closed doors.
The interviews begin Friday with Michael Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. Elston is the only one of the seven scheduled so far.
The others on the list are McNulty; Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis; director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys Michael Battle; Monica Goodling, the Justice Department liaison to the White House; acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer; and Assistant Attorney General William Moschella.
Goodling, who is on personal leave, announced through her attorney this week that she would invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination if she is subpoenaed to testify. It was not clear if she would do the same for the transcribed interviews behind closed doors.(Watch why Goodling took the Fifth)
Conyers' spokesman said the interviews are a first step and not in lieu of a hearing.
Gonzales is scheduled to testify before Congress on April 17.
CNN's Kelli Arena and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
Ex-Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson listens to opening statements Thursday on Capitol Hill.
DEMOCRATS' KEY QUESTIONS
Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont:
Sen. Charles Schumer, New York:
Source: Wednesday Leahy-Schumer news conference
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