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Headline Legal News

Report Assails Political Hiring In Justice Dept.



The New York Times
June 25, 2008


WASHINGTON

Justice Department officials illegally used ''political or ideological'' factors in elite recruiting programs in recent years, tapping law school graduates with Federalist Society membership or other conservative credentials over more qualified candidates with liberal-sounding resumes, an internal report found Tuesday.
More from the New York Times

The report, prepared by the Justice Department's own inspector general and its ethics office, portrays a clumsy effort by senior Justice Department screeners to weed out candidates for career positions whom they considered ''leftists,'' using Internet search engines to look for incriminating information or evidence of possible liberal bias.

One rejected candidate from Harvard Law School worked for Planned Parenthood. Another wrote opinion pieces critical of the USA Patriot Act and the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. A third applicant worked for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and posted an unflattering cartoon of President Bush on his MySpace page.

Another applicant, a student at the top of his class at Harvard who was fluent in Arabic, was relegated to the ''questionable'' pile because he was a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that advocates civil liberties. And another rejected candidate said in his essay that he was ''personally conflicted'' about the National Security Agency's program of wiretapping without warrants.

The report, prepared jointly by the office of the inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, and the Office of Professional Responsibility, is the first in a series of internal reviews growing out of last year's controversy over the dismissals of nine United States attorneys. The report is the first from an official investigation to support accusations that the Bush Justice Department has been overly politicized.

''When it comes to the hiring of nonpartisan career attorneys, our system of justice should not be corrupted by partisan politics,'' said Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. ''It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test.''

The inspector general is investigating other issues related to accusations of politicization in the Justice Department, including the central question of why the United States attorneys were dismissed in late 2006.

Another aspect of the review will look at the work of Monica M. Goodling, a young Justice Department official who testified before Congress in the midst of the controversy over the dismissals last year that she had ''crossed the line'' in considering politics in the hiring of some immigration judges and others. But the findings in Tuesday's report go well beyond the scope of the problems she acknowledged.

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Tuesday that using politics in hiring career lawyers was ''impermissible and unacceptable'' and that the department had taken steps to fix the problems. The report recommended further tightening of internal policies, which Mr. Mukasey said he would welcome.

Ideological and political factors can be used in hiring political appointees, but it is illegal to do so under federal civil service law and Justice Department guidelines in hiring career lawyers. Victims can sue, but offenders cannot generally be prosecuted under criminal law.

The report, based on interviews with dozens of officials and a review of e-mail correspondence, found that ''many qualified candidates'' were rejected from two key recruiting programs -- the attorney general's honors program and the department's summer intern program -- because of what was perceived as their liberal bent.

Those practices, the report concluded, ''constituted misconduct and also violated the department's policies and civil service law that prohibit discrimination in hiring based on political or ideological affiliations.''

The department has used its honors program for many years to attract top entry-level lawyers, luring them away from better-paying jobs in the private sector with the promise of influential careers in public service.

For most of that time, career lawyers in Justice Department divisions, like civil rights or antitrust, chose their own lawyers for the honors program. But in 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft gave his political aides final say over hundreds of applications in response to what some officials believed was a liberal tilt favoring Ivy League schools.

The effect was clear, the report found, with applicants with a Democratic affiliation rejected ''at a significantly higher rate'' than those with Republican, conservative or neutral credentials.

For instance, in 2002, all seven of the honors applicants with membership in the American Constitution Society, a liberal group, were rejected, while 27 of 29 applicants with ties to the Federalist Society, a bedrock conservative group, were accepted.

Similarly, 43 of 61 applicants with ties to the Democratic Party were rejected, while 41 of 46 applicants listed as Republicans were accepted. Many of those rejected were regarded as ''highly qualified'' based on the quality of their schools and other criteria.

Investigators found little evidence of political favoritism from 2003 to 2005, as political appointees at the Justice Department appeared to reduce their role in hiring. But in 2006, under Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the practice rose to new heights.

The report singled out two Justice Department officials on the screening committee -- Michael Elston and Esther Slater McDonald. Investigators noted that they were not subject to discipline because they had left the department. Mr. Elston, who was the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, left in 2007 after several prosecutors said he had tried to intimidate them into keeping silent about their dismissals. Ms. McDonald, a counsel in the associate attorney general's office, abruptly resigned in October -- the day before she was to be interviewed by investigators for the report. Her lawyer declined to make her available for an interview after that.

Neither Mr. Elston nor Ms. McDonald, both now working at private law firms in Washington, could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Investigators reviewed e-mail messages from Ms. McDonald in which she indicated that ''leftist commentary'' or ''buzz words like 'environmental justice' and 'social justice' '' were grounds for rejecting applicants. Membership in liberal organizations like the American Constitution Society, Greenpeace or the Poverty and Race Research Action Council was also seen as a negative mark, the report said.

Peter Keisler, assistant attorney general for the civil division, complained to Mr. Elston after the rejection of several highly qualified applicants that the decisions were ''either irrational or so irrational that they are motivated by politics,'' the report found.

And Carol Lam, the United States attorney in San Diego who was later among the nine dismissed prosecutors, sent an e-mail message to Mr. Elston to ask why a Stanford Law School graduate with strong grades had been rejected over her recommendation. Ms. Lam suspected it was because the applicant had clerked for an appellate judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, or because she had written an article on sex discrimination, the report said.

Ms. Lam asked if there was something unacceptable in the applicant's background that she was not aware of. ''Not that I know of, Carol,'' Mr. Elston responded.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company International News National News New York Regional News Political News Business News Technology News Sports News The New York Times


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