Internal Inquiry: Justice Dept. Officials Broke Law

A new Justice Department report says that politics illegally influenced the hiring of career prosecutors and immigration judges. The 140-page report issued Monday largely lays the blame on top aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The Justice Department has just released an internal investigation saying some of its most senior former officials broke the law. People like the chief of staff and senior counselor to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez considered partisan affiliations when they hired people for jobs that are supposed to be free from politics. The report comes out of an investigation into the firing of seven U.S. attorneys.

NPR'S Ari Shapiro has been reading the report and joins us to talk about what the department inspector general found. Welcome.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning.

AMOS: Let talk about big picture. What do you know about the Justice Department from this report that we didn't know before?

SHAPIRO: Well, at the Justice Department there are all of these walls set up to protect the career law enforcement officials from the political people. This is so that the public knows that law enforcement is not influenced by politics. And this report just illuminates some of the many ways in which during the tenure of Attorney General John Ashcraft and then even more under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, those walls essentially crumbled and there was no line between those two things in many respects.

AMOS: The news of this report is that some senior officials at the department broke the law. Who are they?

SHAPIRO: Well, the report focuses mostly on Monica Goodling, who was senior counselor to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It also talks about Kyle Sampson, who was Gonzales's chief of staff. Both of them have left the department. But there are also people who were involved with this who have not left the department. For example, there's a guy named John Navotsky(ph), who used to work in the press office - I dealt with him quite a bit; he's on detail to Iraq now - he's cited in here for putting out a press release knowing that it was false, saying we didn't use partisan considerations when in fact he knew that they did.

The people who are know longer at the department cannot be disciplined by the Justice Department, but the House Judiciary Committee now says it's talking about potentially looking for criminal charges to come out of this.

AMOS: Let's talk specifically. How exactly did they do the screening that took political considerations into consideration?

SHAPIRO: There was a range of things. They would do Internet research. They would use questionnaires. They would also ask questions during job interviews. So imagine you're in an interview for a job at the Justice Department that is supposed to be free from politics, and according to this report Monica Goodling would ask, What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him? Or: Aside from the president, give us an example of someone currently or recently in public service who you admire. She would also ask people applying for these jobs, supposed to be free from politics: Why are you a Republican?

And according to this report, one candidate said that after he said he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Goodling frowned and commented: But she's pro-choice. This report also confirms a story that NPR broke a few months ago about a woman named Leslie Hagen who was fired over a rumor that she was lesbian; the report says Goodling decided she shouldn't have the job she was in and prevented her from getting other jobs.

And the people who Goodling hired on these partisan affiliations, on these partisan considerations, are now in U.S. attorneys offices around the country, in some cases at the main Justice Department, and a lot of them are immigration judges, which is where this had some of the biggest impacts.

AMOS: And what do you think will happen to these people who actually broke the law?

SHAPIRO: Well, they may have their law license removed. This report only came out an hour ago, so it's too early to say. As I mentioned, the House Judiciary Committee is considering criminal referrals. And then the question is what will happen at the Justice Department itself. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he has implemented many of the changes that the report asked for. He's made it clear again and again partisan considerations have no place in this respect and that he says he's just going to keep hammering away at that and make the changes that this report calls for.

AMOS: Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

AMOS: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

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Justice Dept.'s Hiring Tactics Illegal, Report Says

Justice IG Report

Monica Goodling i i

The Justice Department concludes that Monica Goodling, senior counsel to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, wrongly considered political and ideological affiliations when hiring. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Monica Goodling

The Justice Department concludes that Monica Goodling, senior counsel to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, wrongly considered political and ideological affiliations when hiring.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An internal Justice Department investigation released Monday has concluded that senior officials broke the law by hiring immigration and other officials based on partisan considerations. The report — issued by the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility — culminates an investigation that lasted more than a year, stemming from the firing of seven U.S. attorneys in one day in 2006.

The report focuses on some of the senior officials in the circle of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Specifically, the report names senior counselor and White House liaison Monica Goodling and Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Both have left the department. Another official, John Nowacki, still works at the Justice Department, and the report recommends disciplining him for knowingly issuing false press statements.

The report concludes that Goodling, Sampson and others broke the law by considering political and ideological affiliations in selecting immigration judges, federal prosecutors and other candidates for jobs that are supposed to be free from politics.

According to the report, Goodling would regularly ask job applicants:

"What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?"

"Aside from the president, give us an example of someone currently or recently in public service who you admire."

"Why are you a Republican?"

One applicant told investigators that when he told Goodling he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Goodling frowned and commented, "But she's pro-choice."

According to the report, Goodling knew that what she was doing was wrong. She would give career applicants questionnaires that were only supposed to be for political jobs. If the applicant pointed it out, she would say it was a mistake and take away the questionnaire.

"This is the way you ruin a really stellar government agency," former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who served during the Clinton administration, told NPR. "The credibility of the Department of Justice depends on the American people understanding and believing that the process for administration of justice is completely nonpartisan, and when you undermine that, you grievously harm the American people."

Goodling's attorney, Jeffrey King, released a statement saying: "Each and every one of the core conclusions of the OIG/OPR report released today is consistent with, and indeed derived from, Ms. Goodling's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee."

The report says Goodling screened hundreds of job applicants in many different parts of the Justice Department.

One experienced counterterrorism prosecutor did not get a job in Washington because his wife was a Democrat. As a result, the report says, a much less experienced but politically acceptable attorney was assigned to handle counterterrorism issues.

The inspector general also concluded that Goodling ousted Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie A. Hagen from her assignment in Washington and blocked her from other positions based on Goodling's belief that Hagen was a lesbian.

NPR first broke that story last spring. Hagen's lawyer, Lisa Banks, told NPR that Goodling's actions were devastating to Hagen's career. "She's a 20-year prosecutor with an unblemished record of excellent performance [and] departmental awards, and when Monica Goodling and this administration believed that she might be gay, all of a sudden her career was completely derailed," Banks says.

Goodling was not the only one responsible for politicized hiring. According to the report, Kyle Sampson took the lead on hiring immigration judges. He was the attorney general's chief of staff, and he treated immigration judges as political appointments instead of the career jobs that they are, taking recommendations from the White House and other Republican officials.

Crystal Williams, of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, said the report's findings are not a surprise to those who've been watching the changing profile of the country's immigration courts.

"We've seen some people who perhaps were very helpful in the Florida elections in 2000 and who really have no other qualifications or knowledge of immigration who might be sitting in an immigration judge position now," Williams says.

In a press release, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he was disturbed by the report's findings.

"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 hiring of career department employees," Mukasey said. He also noted that the Justice Department has made many institutional changes to remedy the problems discussed in the report and will make more.

Today's report says Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft were not aware that Goodling, Sampson and others were breaking the law.

One senior Justice official who worked very closely with Goodling reacted to the report this way: "I didn't realize how widespread Monica's activity was, or how she got away with it. She was definitely on a mission. I had no clue."

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