Justice Probes Lawyer's Dismissal Amid Gay Rumor

Monica Goodling i i

hide captionMonica Goodling (above), senior counsel to former Attorney General Gonzales, had a particular interest in Justice attorney Leslie Hagen, according to documents. An e-mail shows that a few months before Hagen was let go, Goodling decided to remove part of Hagen's job portfolio.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Monica Goodling

Monica Goodling (above), senior counsel to former Attorney General Gonzales, had a particular interest in Justice attorney Leslie Hagen, according to documents. An e-mail shows that a few months before Hagen was let go, Goodling decided to remove part of Hagen's job portfolio.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Performance Evaluation

Leslie Hagen, in her final evaluation at the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, received the highest possible performance rating. Click to see Hagen's "outstanding" work appraisal.

The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether a career attorney in the department was dismissed from her job because of rumors that she is a lesbian. The case grew out of a larger inquiry into the firings of U.S. attorneys and politicization at Justice under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Several people interviewed by the inspector general's staff described the case to NPR and said they came away with the impression that the Attorney General's office decided not to renew Leslie Hagen's contract because of the talk about her sexual orientation. Hagen received the highest possible ratings for her work as liaison between the Justice Department and the U.S. attorneys' committee on Native American issues. Her final job evaluation lists five categories for supervisors to rank her performance. For each category, a neat X fills the box marked, "Outstanding." And at the bottom of the page, under "overall rating level," she also got the top mark: Outstanding.

The form is dated February 1, 2007. Several months before that evaluation, Hagen was told her contract would not be renewed.

'The Best Qualified Person in the Nation'

Hagen would not comment for this story, but her job evaluation is consistent with what many others have said about her. A dozen former colleagues, inside and outside of the Justice Department, were interviewed for this story. They worked above, below and side by side with Hagen.

Each one raved about her work.

Sarah Brubaker, a tribal prosecutor in Michigan, said Hagen was "at the very top of any of the prosecutors I've ever worked with." Brubaker said it's very difficult "to find someone of her caliber, who is not only an excellent prosecutor, but also easy to work with — personable, professional."

A former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, Tom Heffelfinger, recruited Hagen in October 2005 to come to Washington from Michigan, where she won awards for her work as a federal prosecutor.

"I felt at the time she was the best qualified person in the nation to fill that job," says Heffelfinger. "I was never consulted about her performance as liaison to the Native American Issues Committee, and I never heard any criticism of her performance from any other component within the department."

The job Hagen filled at the Justice Department comes up for renewal every year. According to department sources, she had hoped to stay in the position rather than return to Michigan as a prosecutor and her supervisors wanted to renew her contract. But in October 2006, word came down from the attorney general's office that Hagen had to move on.

Monica Goodling's Role

The official line on Hagen's dismissal was that contracts like hers are a privilege. Rotating new people through the job each year gives more people a chance to serve.

But what happened next seems to undermine that explanation. Internal Justice Department documents obtained by NPR show that soon after Hagen was let go, two people in her office had their contracts renewed for another year.

And Hagen's post remained vacant months after she left.

Justice Department e-mails obtained by NPR show that Gonzales's senior counsel Monica Goodling had a particular interest in Hagen's duties. A few months before Hagen was let go, according to one e-mail, Goodling removed part of Hagen's job portfolio — the part dealing with child exploitation and abuse.

Goodling, who left the Justice Department last year, declined through her lawyer to comment on the matter.

At the height of the scandal over the fired U.S. attorneys, Goodling admitted to making personnel decisions about career Justice Department lawyers based on improper partisan considerations.

"I crossed the line of the civil service rules," Goodling told Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) at a congressional hearing in May 2007.

'Even Worse Than Being a Democrat'

Goodling's conversation with Scott focused on whether Republican Party loyalty factored into her hiring decisions. But by all accounts, Hagen was a GOP loyalist.

So, what was Goodling's problem with Hagen?

The Justice Department's inspector general is looking into whether Hagen was dismissed after a rumor reached Goodling that Hagen is a lesbian.

As one Republican source put it, "To some people, that's even worse than being a Democrat."

Several people interviewed by the inspector general's staff said investigators asked whether people drew a connection between the rumors and Hagen's dismissal. The witnesses, who spoke to NPR on the condition of anonymity, said they felt that the rumors led to the decision not to renew Hagen's contract.

Someone who worked in Hagen's office says that in a 2006 meeting, senior officials were told that Hagen's contract would not be renewed because someone on the attorney general's staff had a problem with Hagen. The problem, it was suggested during the conversation, was sexual orientation — or what was rumored to be Hagen's sexual orientation.

One person at the meeting asked, "Is that really an issue?" But the decision had been made.

People who know Hagen say she's a private person who does not discuss her personal life. The inspector general's office declined to comment, saying the department does not discuss pending investigations. A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment.

Heffelfinger says it's "a real loss to the Department of Justice and to the people the department serves when somebody like [Hagen] is removed from a position, especially for no reason."

Today, Hagen has another temporary contract, in the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs. She helps administer the Adam Walsh Act, which deals with sex offenders and child exploitation. People who know her say she feels hurt by what she's been through, and that she just wants to focus on her work.

Meanwhile, the job Hagen used to hold is again vacant.

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