It Ain't Over Mukasey

09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remember how senior appointees at the Justice Department got caught using political litmus tests in the civil service hiring process. Well, Attorney General Michael Mukasey declared the incident closed yesterday. There was no criminal harm, he told the American Bar Association, therefore no foul.

He may yet be proven wrong. Federal law expressly prohibits political meddling in the civil service hiring process. If the department's White House liaison officer, Monica M. Goodling, rejected candidates because they were Democrats, she violated the merit principle plain and simple. Although she is long gone from government and no longer subject to the law's removal provisions, she may have engaged in a coordinated campaign with other political hacks, including White House aides, to remove Democrats from the hiring pool. That moves the scandal much closer to a political conspiracy, mild though it might seem to Mukasey and congressional investigators. It's not Watergate, for sure, but might be a good test of just how far politicization can go without crossing the line.

Mukasey needs to recognize that the scandal continues to work its will on department morale, which couldn't be lower. And calls to just get over this painful incident ring hollow to the Millennials who are thinking about a career at Justice. When Millennials hear the words "Justice Department," they ought to be thinking about making a difference, not what they did for a senior thesis or whether their spouse is a registered Democrat.

So what can Mukasey do? First, he should fire some of his political people and replace them with career civil servants. Nothing could do more to raise morale and signal a commitment to professionalism than to elevate some professionals to the top jobs.

Second, he should eliminate the lower-level political jobs that produced so much meddling. Goodling was not a Senate-confirmed political appointee -- she was a second tier "at will" appointee whose main qualification was intense loyalty to the president. Like many lower-level appointees, she had too much time on her hands, which is what most of these appointees do. Mukasey could easily fire half of these "gofer" appointees and eliminate their jobs.

Third, he should take a look at the possible involvement of sympathetic career civil servants in the politicization scheme. After all, there are political wannabes in the civil service, too. There is also good cause to consider some kind of further investigation of just how tightly coordinated the violations of merit were. That would send an important signal to the department about the Attorney General's commitment to change. This was not a failure of adult supervision, as Mukasey implies, but of what may yet turn out to be explicit permission.

Finally, Mukasey should send a special message to the Millennials that he cares about nonpartisan public service. Plan a law-school recruiting tour this fall, send personal letters to job candidates, require more training for his political lieutenants, and start taking this incident seriously. He might even expand his investigations to other departments where similar meddling almost certainly occurred. Absent aggressive action, this painful lesson will leave a very deep scar. And that's something the department cannot afford as the baby boomers walk out the doors.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and author of A Government Ill Executed.