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WASHINGTON - Kyle Sampson had a hand in shaping some of the Bush administration's most ambitious and contentious policies, such as terrorism surveillance, prisoner detention and picking Supreme Court justices.
The Utah native spent the past several years beside the attorney general, first as a top aide to John Ashcroft, then at Alberto Gonzales' right hand.
This week, that hand pointed the finger at Sampson, blaming him for coordinating the purge of eight U.S. attorneys and not sharing details of the plan with those testifying before Congress.
Sampson resigned as chief of staff, but the man who made his career as a behind-the-scenes operator is facing congressional scrutiny and has been cast as everything from fall guy to political hit man.
"I think Kyle Sampson has been wronged," said former Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo, who worked with Sampson. "People like Kyle Sampson, who were simply doing their job in an ethical and honorable way, are now being smeared. He did nothing wrong. He did his job exactly as he should."
Democrats in Congress are skeptical and are vowing a full inquiry. The president is sending Gonzales to fix the mess as some senators, including two Republicans, call for the attorney general's resignation.
Born in Cedar City, Sampson served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among Hmong refugees who had emigrated from Laos to Minnesota, then graduated from Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago law school. He clerked for 4th Circuit Appeals Judge Karen J. Williams, where he showed an outstanding legal mind, said Sheldon Bradshaw, a fellow BYU graduate, law clerk and later a deputy assistant attorney general.
"From the very first time I met Kyle it was obvious that he was a very gifted person who was a phenomenal writer, very quick, very bright, and all of that coupled with being humble, but he was very sure of himself," said Bradshaw, now counsel at the Food and Drug Administration. Bradshaw also serves as first counselor to Sampson, bishop in his LDS ward.
Sampson practiced law in Salt Lake City until 1999, when his former law professor, Michael McConnell, urged him to go to work on the Judiciary Committee under Sen. Orrin Hatch.
"I enjoyed practicing law but always liked policy and politics, and it was an opportunity to work for my home-state senator on the Judiciary Committee," Sampson told The Tribune in a 2005 interview. "So we thought, 'What the heck. We love Salt Lake, but we'll go out for a year or two for a sabbatical to Washington.' "
D.C. stuck, and he still lives in northern Virginia with his wife, Noelle, and their three children.
After the 2000 election, Sampson was encouraged by his law school friend Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's daughter, to join the White House and screen the flood of job-seekers. Sampson's friend Taylor Oldroyd, now with the Agriculture Department, told a BYU alumni magazine that Sampson was the reason he and numerous other Cougars had spots in the administration.
Sampson became an associate counsel under Gonzales, the White House counsel at the time. Among his first tasks was to help rush together a list of potential Supreme Court nominees by June 2001, Brad Berenson, an associate counsel in Bush's first term, said in a 2005 interview with The Tribune.
"The experience of having been so close to the center of power for so long hasn't jaded him or made him unduly impressed with himself," Berenson said. "But underneath that gentle and approachable exterior is a tremendously sharp mind and shrewd political talent."
Sampson now has hired Berenson as his attorney.
Sampson moved to the Justice Department in 2003 as a top aide to Ashcroft. In 2005, Sampson told of long talks he had with Ashcroft while traveling.
"Some people think you should never talk about religion and politics in conversation and, like me, General Ashcroft thinks those are the two most interesting things to talk about," said Sampson. "So that's what we talk about, doctrinal things. What's your belief in God? What about mercy and justice?"
Ashcroft left after the 2004 election, and Gonzales was picked to replace him. Sampson helped the nominee through the Senate, much as he later helped the president's Supreme Court nominees with their grueling confirmations.
About that time, the suggestion was floated that a number of U.S. attorneys could be replaced with Bush loyalists. Sampson opposed wholesale change but by March 2005 sent a list of targeted prosecutors to White House Counsel Harriet Miers.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner announced in January 2006 he would become a federal magistrate, opening a spot Sampson had long sought.
An e-mail released Thursday suggests that Sampson may have tried to push Warner out of the job in early 2005 but was rebuffed by Hatch.
With Warner stepping aside in 2006, Sampson lined up the support of Gonzales and others, but Hatch recommended Brett Tolman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Utah who was working for the Judiciary Committee at the time for Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.
Tolman, who ultimately got the job, had in March 2006 added language to the Patriot Act renewal, at the Justice Department's request, to allow the White House to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate consent.
By November 2006, Sampson had a final list of prosecutors to fire, a detailed plan how to proceed - including a script for dismissing the attorneys - and a warning to brace for political fallout. On Dec. 4, the White House signed off and three days later seven U.S. attorneys were let go.
When Democrats challenged the firings, Justice officials assured Congress the decisions were not politically coordinated with the White House and were based on "performance" issues.
It wasn't true, as Sampson's e-mails later showed. Sampson quit, but Democrats were outraged, questioning if they had been misled and have vowed subpoenas if necessary, including one for Sampson, to find out.
Corallo says the president can fire any appointee for any reason but that the administration botched the issue, offering unnecessary excuses that smeared the prosecutors and people like Sampson.
"Kyle is the kind of guy who takes any assault on his integrity very personally. I can't even imagine how difficult this has been for him," Corallo said.
Sampson has gone silent in the days since his resignation and tried, as much as possible, to maintain a low profile. BYU in recent days pulled his photograph from its online alumni magazine and told reporters the school didn't have permission to share it.
Sampson's attorney, Berenson, released a statement Friday defending his client, saying: "Kyle did not resign because he had misled anyone at the Justice Department or withheld information concerning the replacement of the U.S. Attorneys.
"He resigned because, as Chief of Staff, he felt he had let the Attorney General down in failing to appreciate the need for and organize a more effective response to the unfounded accusations that the replacements were improper."
Hatch and Rep. Chris Cannon, Judiciary Committee members who know Sampson well, are notably silent.
"I just want to see more facts before I say anything," Cannon said.
Hatch is reserving judgment on his former staffer, whom he has called "one of the brightest young men to come back here" with a "magnificent future."
Now Sampson's future is far more cloudy.
Excerpts from Justice Department e-mails
"As a political matter, each of our U.S. Attorneys has been recommended by one or more political leaders in their home State. I suspect that when push comes to shove, home-State Senators likely would resist wholesale (or even piecemeal) replacement of U.S. Attorneys they recommended (see Senator Hatch and the Utah U.S. Attorney). That said, if Karl [Rove] thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I."
In a Jan. 9, 2005, e-mail to deputy White House counsel David Leitch, responding to an inquiry from Karl Rove
"To execute this plan properly we must all be on the same page and be steeled to withstand any political upheaval that might result. . . . If we start caving to complaining U.S. Attorneys or Senators then we shouldn't do it - it'll be more trouble than it is worth."
In a Nov. 15, 2006, e-mail to White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy Counsel William Kelley