July 28, 2008

Justice Department Watchdogs Find Politics Illegally Influenced Hiring

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

The report by the department's inspector general and the 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.

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 report is the second by the two offices to find that department officials disproportionately weeded out candidates with liberal credentials and hired those with conservative affiliations. Investigators also found that several other former Justice Department officials were improperly screening candidates for the department's honors program and summer internships.

The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility are continuing to investigate whether partisan political reasons prompted the administration's controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and whether partisan politics influenced its handling of civil-rights and voting rights cases.

The latest report didn't dispute Gonzales' claim that he didn't know that his aides were violating hiring laws. 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 J. Terwilliger III said.

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

"The policies and attitudes of this administration encouraged politicization of the department and permitted these excesses," said 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 Justice Department report: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0807/final.pdf

More from McClatchy:

Mukasey denies politics at Justice, surprising Democrats: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/staff/marisa(underscore)taylor/story/43579.html

IG report: Justice Dept. wrongly considered politics in hiring: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/staff/marisa(underscore)taylor/story/42022.html

Aide testifies that Gonzales discussed firings of U.S. attorneys: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/reports/usattorneys/story/16483.html


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