Aide's powers a shocker even for supporters
WASHINGTON - The disclosure of a secret order by the attorney general that gave broad authority to his former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, over the hiring and firing of senior Justice Department employees is drawing bipartisan ire in Congress.
Even Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' lone defender during his recent Senate testimony, said the order should have been turned over to Congress.
"It's disturbing that Congress had to learn about the March 2006 memo through the press," Hatch said. "We should have known about this."
The revelation of the "internal" order turned up the heat this week on the Justice Department, already suffering from a dwindling number of supporters in Congress as the investigation into the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys drags on.
The order granted Sampson - a Utah native who was Gonzales' chief of staff until he resigned in March - and the Justice Department's liaison with the White House, Monica Goodling, the authority, "with the approval of the attorney general, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration.''
The order only applied to political appointees, those who change with each new administration - about 130 of the 110,000 Justice Department employees.
Sampson's attorney, Bradford Berenson, declined to comment when contacted Friday by The Tribune.
The National Journal broke the story this week, and the revelation sparked bipartisan ire toward the Justice Department.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; the ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; and four other senators from both parties sent a letter to Gonzales seeking the order.
"The committee has issued multiple requests for the Department to produce documents in its custody. . . . Despite these requests, the order has not been produced and its existence has not been disclosed," the senators wrote. "We ask that you please produce the order and all related documents immediately."
Specter was infuriated that a formal delegation of power took place, but congressional investigators were not notified, The Associated Press reported.
Rep. Chris Cannon, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee investigating the firing of the U.S. attorneys, downplayed the department's failure to turn over the the attorney general's order.
"I don't know that there's anything secret about it and it was by nature outside the scope of documents that were asked for," Cannon said. Political appointees can be fired for a broad array of reasons, he said, and it is appropriate to let top staff review an appointee's performance and recommend action to the attorney general.
The Justice Department said the power granted by the order is not unusual, and emphasized the attorney general remained in the loop.
"This order simply gives the chief of staff and the White House liaison the authority to execute certain decisions related to the hiring and termination of some noncareer employees with - as the memo states - 'the approval of the attorney general,' " said spokesman Dean Boyd.
But some, like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., questioned at a hearing in March whether too much decision-making power had been turned over to young, inexperienced staff like Sampson and Goodling.
And Goodling, it was reported this week, is under investigation for allowing political allegiances to influence hiring of career prosecutors.