Watchdogs: Gonzales aides broke law in hiring

Top aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales violated federal laws and Justice Department policies by selecting employees based on their conservative and Republican leanings, a joint report by two department watchdog agencies concluded Monday.

The report by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility found that in some instances, especially involving the hiring of immigration judges, the improper screening was “systematic.”

“This resulted in high-quality candidates for important department positions being rejected because of improper political considerations,” Inspector General Glenn Fine said.

Investigators also found that three Justice Department officials had provided inaccurate information to Congress, Fine's investigators and their own department. The Justice Department still employs one of them, John Nowacki.

The report is the second to find that department officials disproportionately weeded out candidates with liberal credentials and hired those with conservative affiliations. The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility also found that several other former Justice Department officials were improperly screening candidates for the department's honors program and summer internships.

According to a tally from both reports, at least seven officials used improper hiring practices.

Discrimination based on political affiliation when hiring career employees violates federal hiring laws, but it isn't a crime. The most severe punishment for such misconduct would be firing, and most of the officials singled out in the report have resigned voluntarily.

In a statement Monday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who succeeded Gonzales, said the findings disturbed him. “I have said many times, both to members of the public and to department employees, it is neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees,” he said.

Mukasey added that the Justice Department had made several changes to the hiring process to prevent political considerations from being weighed in the future.

The latest report didn't dispute Gonzales' claim that his aides violated hiring laws without his knowledge. In a statement that Gonzales and his lawyer issued Monday, the former attorney general reiterated that defense and deflected responsibility for the way that politics influenced his department's hiring.

“It's simply not possible for any Cabinet officer to be completely aware of and micromanage the activities of staffers, particularly where they don't inform him of what's going on,” his lawyer George Terwilliger III said.

Administration critics disputed the characterization, contending that the two reports found that high-level administration officials were to blame.

“The policies and attitudes of this administration encouraged politicization of the department and permitted these excesses,” charged Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It is now clear that these politically rooted actions were widespread, and could not have been done without at least the tacit approval of senior department officials.”

The report assigns much of the blame to former Gonzales aide Monica Goodling. Goodling routinely looked up the names of candidates for career positions on Internet sites and asked interview questions to determine how conservative they were, investigators said.

Often, applicants were asked about their views on abortion and same-sex marriage. When one job candidate told Goodling that he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Goodling “frowned” and said “but she's pro-choice,” the report says.

Goodling told the interim U.S. attorney in Washington that a candidate for a federal prosecutor position gave her pause because he appeared to be a “liberal Democrat.”

Goodling also said she was reluctant to hire the candidate because Republican congressional staff members might be interested in applying for the job after the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006. The interim U.S. attorney, Jeff Taylor, complained about her opposition, and he eventually was allowed to hire the prosecutor.

The report singled out Goodling's superior, Kyle Sampson, for changing the hiring process for immigration judges in a way that encouraged improper political hiring. As a result, the department hired mostly judges whom the White House recommended.

Sampson's lawyer, Brad Berenson, a former Bush White House lawyer, said Monday that Sampson thought it was legal to consider political leanings when hiring immigration judges, but when he learned otherwise he stopped the practice.

Investigators also criticized Goodling, Nowacki and Jan Williams, Goodling's predecessor, as providing inaccurate information about the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

Goodling, who received immunity in exchange for her congressional testimony about the firings, appeared to make misstatements to Congress and to a Justice Department civil division lawyer who was defending the department against a complaint by a job candidate, the report said.

Investigators also found that Nowacki, a former department spokesman, wrote a draft news release that he knew wasn't true and that Williams provided inaccurate information about the hiring of immigration judges.

Nowacki, who's now working in Iraq, couldn't be reached for comment.