Could Watchdog Office Probe Taint Justice Inquiry?

The Justice Department recently became a farm system for conservative lawyers, according to a report released Monday by the department's inspector general. In the process, many qualified job applicants were rejected for positions because they might be liberals.

Now, people who believe they were rejected for Justice Department jobs because of their ideology may find that the office that is supposed to represent them suffers from the same problems as the department that first rejected them.

Problems At OSC

The Office of Special Counsel was created to address problems like those the inspector general identified at the Justice Department.

"This kind of politicization of the career civil service is squarely within the core jurisdiction of the Office of Special Counsel," says Elaine Kaplan, who served as OSC special counsel until 2003.

Kaplan says if she were still at OSC, she'd be working closely with the Justice Department's inspector general to represent the people who were passed over for jobs because of their politics. Kaplan describes this case as "a slam dunk in terms of whether there was a violation -– massive violations -– of civil service laws."

In the past, OSC has won back pay and new jobs for job applicants in situations comparable to the one at the Justice Department, as described in the report.

The problem is, OSC itself has been in the news a lot lately: FBI agents raided the office in May because they're investigating Scott Bloch, the current special counsel. His deputy recently resigned, accusing Bloch in a resignation letter of pursuing "political agendas and personal vendettas."

That's exactly what people at the Justice Department are accused of doing.

Resistance

Kaplan says for OSC to function effectively, other government agencies need to cooperate with special counsel investigators.

"Now, to the extent that OSC's reputation is tarnished, there's going to be resistance," Kaplan says.

In fact, Justice Department investigators a year ago publicly told the Office of Special Counsel that they would not cooperate with an OSC investigation until the inspector general's office had concluded its own inquiry.

When people at the OSC do take action on the matter at Justice, Kaplan says, the public will question the office's motivations.

"It looks like everyone is discredited, so who can we trust really?" she says.

Not so, according to OSC spokesman Jim Mitchell.

"Some people might think that we're working in the middle of a tornado, but we are continuing to do our work, regardless of the controversy, and our office is continuing to function quite effectively," Mitchell says.

Mitchell says OSC staffers have already met with the Justice Department to talk about an inspector general report released on June 24 that shows politicized hiring for entry-level attorneys.

"Similarly," Mitchell says, "we expect that we will be working closely with Justice for the same reasons to bring our enforcement powers in on the issues that were identified in this current report."

The report released Monday says one attorney, Leslie Hagen, was denied several assignments because of a rumor that she was gay.

The Office of Special Counsel has said in the past that it will not pursue complaints from people who were mistreated because of their sexual orientation.

Hagen's lawyer, Lisa Banks, has skipped OSC and gone straight to Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Hagen's "career was completely derailed," Banks says, "and that's the wrong that needs to be righted by the attorney general at this point."

Banks sent Mukasey a letter Monday, asking him to "assign Hagen to an acceptable permanent position."

She has yet to receive a response.

The courts offer yet a third course of action.

Earlier this month, a man named Sean Gerlich filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. His complaint claims he was rejected for a job with the prestigious Justice Department honors program because of his liberal affiliations. He says the department violated his free speech and privacy rights. The suit asks for $100,000 in damages.

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