WSJ, McClatchy uncritically reported Sampson's claim that Lam's "real problem" was immigration


In their March 30 articles on the testimony given by D. Kyle Sampson -- former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales -- to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, both The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and McClatchy Newspapers reported Sampson's claim that Carol Lam, the former U.S. attorney for San Diego, was fired because of her lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting illegal immigration cases. But neither news outlet noted the evidence that appears to contradict this explanation. For example, they both failed to mention that, during his March 29 testimony, Sampson conceded that the Justice Department never informed Lam of dissatisfaction with her office's performance on illegal immigration. The Journal and McClatchy also did not note a letter disclosed during the March 29 hearing in which a top official at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency asserted that Lam "strengthened the efforts ... to combat migrant smuggling." Additionally, neither news outlet reported that San Diego's top official from the Federal Bureau of Investigation said of Lam's dismissal, "I guarantee politics was involved."

On May 11, 2006, the day after Lam notified the Justice Department that her office would issue search warrants in an investigation involving Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis (CA), Sampson sent an email to White House Deputy Counsel William Kelly mentioning "[t]he real problem we have right now with Carol Lam that leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires." Both the Journal and McClatchy articles mentioned that Sampson denied that his email was linked to Lam's probe of Lewis or any other corruption cases involving Republicans, instead saying that the "real problem" with Lam was her purportedly lackluster performance regarding illegal immigration cases. From McClatchy:

Sampson denied that former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam in San Diego might have been fired for investigating a top CIA official or a Republican lawmaker. Instead, he said that the curious timing of an e-mail in which he described Lam as a "real problem" was pegged to Republican criticism that she wasn't aggressive enough in prosecuting illegal immigration.

The Journal similarly reported:

Mr. Sampson largely held his own during questioning in a packed Senate meeting room. Some of the most pointed questions came from Republican members of the committee, especially Mr. Specter, a former prosecutor. Mr. Specter asked whether any of the resignations were sought to end a public-corruption investigation that was apparently turning toward a Republican member of the House.

Carol Lam, who investigated former California Rep. Duke Cunningham, fell out of favor because of her lack of attention on immigration cases, Mr. Sampson said. "There was never any connection in my mind between asking Carol Lam to resign and the public-corruption case she was working on," he said. "The real problem at that time was her office's prosecution of immigration cases. At the time of that email that's what was in my mind."

But neither article cited evidence that undermines Sampson's claim. As the weblog Talking Points Memo has noted, during the hearing, Sampson admitted that the Justice Department never informed Lam before she was fired that her record on illegal immigration cases was subpar:

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): Mr. Sampson, did you or anyone else in your office call Carol Lam and tell her that you were concerned about her immigration record?

SAMPSON: I did not, and I'm not -- I don't remember anyone in my office doing that.

FIENSTEIN: Well, we've asked her that question and no one did. And yet you didn't ever, as the chief of staff to the attorney general of the United States, pick up the phone and call her and say, "We have a problem with your record," nor did anyone else in the department?

SAMPSON: Senator, I recall that I suggested that that be done, that the -- I recall that, in the spring, around that time the attorney general had asked the deputy attorney general's office -- the deputy attorney general in his office to work on the -- improving immigration numbers and getting some immigration enforcement deliverables out of that office, and I remember that he specifically tasked the deputy attorney general to do that, and I remember asking, "Has anyone called Carol Lam?" and I think that my words were "woodshedded Carol Lam" about immigration enforcement.


SAMPSON: No one to my knowledge talked to Carol Lam about the concerns that were had in the leadership of the department about her office's illegal immigration enforcement.

In addition, neither the Journal nor McClatchy noted that Feinstein presented a February 15 letter from the director of Field Operations at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency praising Lam's leadership as a U.S. attorney, writing that "[u]nder her leadership many initiatives have been undertaken that have strengthened the efforts of CBP to combat migrant smuggling."

Nor did either article mention that, according to a January 13 San Diego Union-Tribune article, Dan Dzwilewski, FBI special agent-in-charge in San Diego, said of Lam's dismissal, "I guarantee politics was involved."

In a March 30 article on Sampson's March 29 testimony, the Los Angeles Times mentioned Dzwilewski's comments in reference to Sampson's May 11, 2006, email:

Sampson testified that the "the real problem" he was referring to was that Lam was not prosecuting enough immigration cases. He said the Justice Department was under pressure from House Republicans for not prosecuting immigration fraud more aggressively.

He also acknowledged complaining to an aide to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III this year when the San Diego FBI chief questioned in a news report whether Lam's departure was politically motivated.

Mueller testified this week that the FBI subsequently ordered the agent to stop talking to the media.

While the Los Angeles Times, like the Journal and McClatchy, did not mention Sampson's admission that the Justice Department never notified Lam of her purportedly below-average immigration case record. Meanwhile, in its March 30 article on Sampson's testimony, The New York Times reported Sampson's admission but did not note Dzwilewski's comment that her dismissal was politically motivated:

[Sampson] repeatedly rebuffed questions suggesting that any of the dismissals occurred for inappropriate political reasons. But he conceded that complaints by Republican political figures most likely played a role in ousting David C. Iglesias in New Mexico and Carol C. Lam in San Diego.


Mr. Sampson disputed suggestions that Ms. Lam was removed because of her office's corruption investigation of former Representative Randy Cunningham, a Republican, who was convicted in 2005.

"The real problem at that time was her office's prosecution of immigration cases," Mr. Sampson said. But he said he did not think she was told of concerns that her office was failing to prosecute enough border smugglers before she was ousted.

The Washington Post and USA Today did not report Sampson's discussion of Lam's dismissal in their March 30 articles on the hearing.

Posted In
Government, Ethics, Immigration
Wall Street Journal, McClatchy Newspapers
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.