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
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
''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
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
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
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