WASHINGTON — Former Justice Department officials broke the law by letting Bush administration politics dictate the hiring of prosecutors, immigration judges and other career government lawyers, according to an internal investigation released Monday.
For nearly two years, top advisers to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales discriminated against applicants for career jobs who weren't Republican or conservative loyalists, the Justice report found.
At times, their search for GOP activists delayed filling judgeships and threatened to clog immigration courts, the report said.
The federal government makes a distinction between "career" and "political" appointees, and it's a violation of civil service laws and Justice Department policy to hire career employees on the basis of political affiliation or allegiance.
Yet Monica Goodling, who served as Gonzales' counselor and White House liaison, routinely asked career job applicants about politics, the report concluded.
"What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" Goodling asked at least some candidates, according to the joint investigation by Justice's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility. Others were asked about their views on abortion and gay marriage.
"It appeared that these topics were discussed as a result of the question seeking information about how the applicant would characterize the type of conservative they were," the report said.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who succeeded Gonzales, said he was "of course disturbed" by the findings. He said he would make sure "that the conduct described in this report does not occur again at the department."
The investigation was one of several examining accusations that White House political meddling drove prosecution, policy and employment decisions within the once fiercely independent Justice Department. Those charges were spurred initially by the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and culminated with Gonzales' resignation under fire as attorney general last September.
Gonzales appeared unaware of the political hiring process outlined by Goodling and his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, the report said. Gonzales has kept a low profile since leaving the department, and said in a statement Monday that "political considerations should play no part in the hiring of career officials at the Department of Justice. ... I agree with the report's recommendations."
The 140-page report does not indicate whether Goodling or Sampson could face any charges. None of those involved in the discriminatory hiring still work at Justice, meaning they will avoid any departmental penalties.
But congressional Democrats took aim, raising the possibility they would seek prosecution on a number of fronts, potentially including charges of lying to lawmakers for giving sworn testimony that contradicts Monday's findings.
"The cost to our nation of these apparent crimes was severe, as qualified individuals were rejected for key positions in the fight against terrorism and other critical department jobs for no reason other than political whim," House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said. "I have directed my staff to closely review this matter and to consider whether a criminal referral for perjury is needed."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said "it is crystal clear that the law was broken" by the political hiring process.
"But since it is unlikely that Monica Goodling acted on her own," Schumer added, "the question is, how many others were involved."
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to say whether he thought criminal charges should be brought against Goodling or Sampson. Specter said he wanted to closely question Justice Inspector General Glenn A. Fine on the details during a hearing before the panel set for Wednesday.
The joint report largely focused on Goodling's role in commandeering the hiring process between March 2005 and April 2007, when she resigned.
In one instance, Justice investigators found, Goodling objected to hiring an assistant prosecutor in Washington because "judging from his resume, he appeared to be a liberal Democrat."
In another, she rejected an experienced terror prosecutor to work on counterterror issues at a Justice Department headquarters office "because of his wife's political affiliations," the report said. It also said she rejected at least one job applicant who was rumored to be a lesbian.
Goodling, a former Republican National Committee researcher with little experience as a prosecutor, admitted in House Judiciary Committee testimony last year that she "crossed the lines" while hiring Justice career employees. She received immunity for her testimony, meaning she cannot be prosecuted unless proven that she lied while under oath.
Her attorney, John Dowd, called it "outrageous" to accuse Goodling of lying to Congress.
"Far from attempting to conceal information, Ms. Goodling went to great lengths to provide the Congress with relevant facts, including important information about matters that had not yet come to the public's attention," Dowd said in a statement.
Details about the hiring of immigration judges and other career attorneys became known only because of her May 2007 testimony, Dowd said.
Justice investigators concluded that the White House political affairs office recommended a majority of the immigration judge candidates that Sampson and Goodling considered hiring, including one name forwarded by then-top Bush adviser Karl Rove. Sampson has said he initially believed politics could be considered for filling those jobs, and the report shows Goodling researched applicants' GOP bona fides, including campaign contributions and voter registration records.
Sampson's lawyer, Brad Berenson, described his client's hiring decisions as an honest mistake. Berenson said Sampson "immediately agreed with the recommendation to put a stop to this process" when he first learned he may have been wrong.
One candidate received high marks for having attended a "very Republican school," the report notes, but also was faulted for what Goodling called "Cons. On God, guns and gays."
Eventually, Goodling's screening process created a backlog for immigration courts amid their increased workload. At one point, as many as 25 immigration judge slots needed to be filled, the report noted.
In a July 25, 2006, e-mail, one Justice official complained about the slowdown, saying eight vacancies "have been sitting with Monica (and sitting, and sitting and ...)."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto played down the report, saying, "There really is not a lot new here."
The DOJ report can be found at: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0807/final.pdf