ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Nearly a year ago, the Justice Department's inspector general started investigating hiring and firing practices there. That was after former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired a group of U.S. attorneys all in one day. Today, we have a chapter of this story that has never been told publicly before. It's about a career attorney who was let go for reasons having nothing to do with her job performance. She was apparently dismissed after a rumor about her sexual orientation reached the highest levels of the Justice Department.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Leslie Hagen's last job evaluation at the Justice Department's executive office of U.S. attorneys lists five categories for supervisors to rate her performance. In each category, a neat X fills the box marked outstanding and at the bottom of the page, under overall rating level, Leslie Hagen again received the highest possible mark: outstanding. That evaluation is dated February 1, 2007. A few months earlier, Hagen was told that her contract would not be renewed. People who know her were shocked.
Mr. TOM HEFFELFINGER (Former U.S. Attorney, Minnesota): I would have concurred with the outstanding rankings.
SHAPIRO: Tom Heffelfinger was Minnesota's U.S. attorney until two years ago. He persuaded Hagen to move to Washington from Michigan, where she won awards for her work as a federal prosecutor.
Mr. HEFFELFINGER: I felt that at the time, she was the best qualified person in the nation to fill that job.
SHAPIRO: That job was the liaison between the main Justice Department and the U.S. attorneys' committee on Native American issues. Heffelfinger chaired the committee.
Mr. HEFFELFINGER: I was never consulted about her performance, and I never heard any criticism of her performance from any other component within the department or any tribal leaders or other federal representatives with whom she might have been working.
SHAPIRO: Hagen would not comment for this story. But Heffelfinger's description of her is consistent with what many others have said in and outside of the Justice Department. I spoke with a dozen of her former colleagues, people who worked above, below and side-by-side with Hagen. Each one raved about her work. Sarah Brubaker is a tribal prosecutor in Michigan.
Ms. SARAH BRUBAKER (Tribal Prosecutor, Michigan): To find someone of her caliber who is not only an excellent prosecutor but also easy to work with, personable, professional, I think it's very difficult. I would rate her at the very top of any of the prosecutors I've ever worked with.
SHAPIRO: The job Hagen filled at Justice comes up for renewal every year. According to Justice Department sources, Hagen wanted to stay in her job for a second year rather than return to Michigan as a prosecutor. Her supervisors wanted her to stay, too.
But in October of 2006, Hagen was told she had to move on. The official explanation was contracts like Hagen's are a privilege. Rotating new people through the job each year gives more people a chance to serve. But what happened next undermines that explanation.
Internal Justice Department documents show that soon after Hagen was let go, two people in her office had their contracts re-upped for another year, and Hagen's position remained vacant for months after she left. Justice Department e-mails obtained by NPR showed that the attorney general's former senior counsel, Monica Goodling, had a particular interest in Hagen.
Goodling left the Justice Department last year, and she declined through her lawyer to comment for the story. An e-mail shows that a few months before Hagen was let go, Goodling decided to remove part of Hagen's job portfolio, the part dealing with child exploitation and abuse.
A bit of context here: During the scandal over fired U.S. attorneys, Goodling admitted to making personnel decisions about career Justice Department lawyers based on improper partisan considerations.
Here's an exchange Goodling had with Democratic congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia.
Representative BOBBY SCOTT (Democrat, Virginia): Was that legal?
Ms. MONICA GOODLING (Former U.S. Justice Department Official): Sir, I'm not able to answer to that question. I know I crossed the line.
Rep. SCOTT: What line - legal?
Ms. GOODLING: I crossed the line of the civil service rules.
Rep. SCOTT: Rules, laws? You crossed the line of civil service laws, is that right?
Ms. GOODLING: I believe I crossed the law - lines, but I didn't mean to.
SHAPIRO: That conversation focused on whether Goodling considered Republican Party loyalty in hiring decisions. But by all accounts, Hagen was a Republican Party loyalist. So what was the problem? Well, the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether Hagen was dismissed because a rumor reached Goodling that Hagen is lesbian.
As one Republican source put it, to some people, that's even worse than being a Democrat. Several people who were interviewed by the inspector general's staff said, after talking with investigators, they believe the rumor about sexual orientation led to Hagen's dismissal. A source who worked in Hagen's office described an exchange supporting that theory.
According to the source, at a meeting in 2006, 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. This source said, during the conversation, it was suggested that the problem was sexual orientation - or what was rumored to be Hagen's sexual orientation, anyway. 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 doesn't discuss her personal life. The inspector general's office declined to comment, saying they don't discuss pending investigations. And a Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment. Former U.S. attorney Tom Heffelfinger says:
Mr. HAFFELFINGER: I think it's a real loss to the Department of Justice and to the people the department serves when somebody like that is removed from a position, especially for no apparent reason.
SHAPIRO: Today, Hagen has another temporary contract in the 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 says she feels hurt by what she's been through and now, she just wants to focus on her work. The job she used to hold as liaison between the Justice Department and the Native American issues committee is again vacant.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: You can read an excerpt of Leslie Hagen's job evaluation at our Web site, npr.org.