Gonzales Aides Used Politics in Hiring, Report Says (Update3)
July 28 (Bloomberg) -- Aides to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales violated federal law by improperly using political considerations when hiring career Justice Department lawyers and immigration judges, an agency report found.
The audit, by the Justice Department inspector general and ethics chief, concluded that Monica Goodling, the White House liaison, and Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, committed misconduct. Gonzales, who resigned under pressure last year, was generally unaware of his aides' actions, the report said.
The screening ``resulted in high-quality candidates for important department positions being rejected,'' the agency's inspector general, Glenn Fine, said in a statement.
The report, the second of four that the internal watchdogs are releasing this year on politicization at the Justice Department, cites several other officials for improperly screening job candidates or for making inaccurate statements about the process. The first audit, released last month, said department staffers used partisan considerations to hire interns and young lawyers.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who succeeded Gonzales, said in a statement that he was ``disturbed'' by the report's findings.
``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,'' the attorney general said.
Civil Hiring Laws
The conclusions in today's report may not result in prosecutions because the allegations mainly involve civil hiring laws. In addition, Goodling, Sampson and most of the other Gonzales aides have left the Justice Department.
Still, congressional Democrats, who have spent more than a year investigating whether the Bush administration dismissed nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons, vowed to press for punishment.
``Since it is unlikely that Monica Goodling acted on her own, the question is, how many others were involved,'' said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who spearheaded the firing probe. ``We will look for every way possible to hold the appropriate people accountable.''
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, said the report indicates that Goodling, Sampson and Gonzales may have lied to Congress during its probes of the Justice Department.
``I have directed my staff to closely review this matter and to consider whether a criminal referral for perjury is needed,'' Conyers said in a statement.
`Crossed the Line'
Goodling testified last year that she ``crossed the line'' by inquiring about the party affiliations of some career job applicants. Her attorney, John Dowd, called Conyers's suggestion that she may have lied to his panel ``outrageous'' given Goodling's ``exceptional candor and cooperation.''
Sampson's lawyer, Brad Berenson, said in a statement that Sampson ``consistently opposed the use of political or partisan hiring criteria for positions he knew to be career civil service positions.''
Federal law and Justice Department policy require career officials to be hired on merit and prohibit discrimination based on political affiliations.
Texas Representative Lamar Smith, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the report didn't find that partisan politics ``affected the substance'' of the agency's work. He said any suggestions that the hiring practices were part of a ``widespread problem are false and undermine the good work of the many civil servants and political appointees'' at the agency.
The report concluded that Goodling declined to approve the hiring of a career assistant U.S. attorney in Washington because, judging by his resume, he appeared to be a ``liberal Democrat.'' The lawyer was later hired after the top prosecutor in the office complained to Sampson.
In another case, Goodling rejected the application of a career terrorism prosecutor who wanted a temporary job working at headquarters on counter-terrorism issues, because his wife was active in the local Democratic party. Instead, the report said, a less experienced lawyer was chosen.
Goodling also tried to block a career Justice Department lawyer from getting another job because of rumors that she was a lesbian, the report said.
The report found that ``the most systematic use of improper political or ideological screening'' was for immigration judges. It placed the blame on Sampson, who in late 2003 and early 2004 devised a new process for picking the judges that gave the attorney general's office the power to hire them.
In an interview with investigators, Sampson said he was given advice from the Justice Department's legal counsel office that immigration judges were political positions. However, the report said it found no evidence to back up the claim that the office provided such advice.
Berenson said Sampson ``believed in complete good faith'' that immigration judges were political positions and that he agreed to stop the hiring practice when he learned his belief may be wrong.
The department changed its process for hiring immigration judges in April 2007 under Gonzales, and the report noted that political considerations are no longer being used to screen applicants.
Gonzales, in a statement issued by his attorneys, said he is ``gratified that the efforts I initiated to address this issue have now been affirmed and augmented by this report.''
His lawyer, George Terwilliger, said the report shows that when Gonzales was aware of the problems in hiring, he moved to fix them.
``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,'' Terwilliger said.
Mukasey said he has ``acted, and will continue to act, to ensure that my words are translated into reality so that the conduct described in this report does not occur again.''
* * * *
* * * *