Justice Department Fears Inquiry Hurts Credibility As Congress continues investigating allegations of politicization at the Justice Department, some current and former department employees say they fear that the scandal is hurting department morale and damaging the institution's credibility in the courts.
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Justice Department Fears Inquiry Hurts Credibility

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Justice Department Fears Inquiry Hurts Credibility

Justice Department Fears Inquiry Hurts Credibility

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It's been six months since Congress started investigating the Bush administration's decision to fire a group of U.S. attorneys. Since then, several top members of the Justice Department have resigned in the controversy.

And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the scandal is having an impact on the department.

ARI SHAPIRO: Do you feel about your job the way these people feel about having worked at the Justice Department?

Mr. ROSCOE HOWARD JR (Partner, Troutman Sanders LLP; Former Washington, D.C. U.S. Attorney): It's like family. You're going to have some family who fall off the wagon, but they're still your family.

SHAPIRO: That's Roscoe Howard. He was Washington, D.C.'s U.S. attorney during President Bush's first term.

Here's Aitan Goelman, who prosecuted the Oklahoma City bombing case.

Mr. AITAN GOELMAN (Lawyer): I love the institution. I loved being there. It's really painful to watch it be smeared.

SHAPIRO: Justice officials like to say that theirs is the only federal department with a value in its name. The pride and love that many federal prosecutors have for the Justice Department has taken a hit in the last six months as accusations have emerged that Justice Department leaders made decisions based on politics rather than the law.

Mr. HOWARD: It's hurt. I think it's hurt the people that are in there. And it's fair to say morale is low. I don't think that is going to be a surprise to anybody.

SHAPIRO: Even though he's in private practice now, Roscoe Howard is still in touch with many current Justice Department employees. He represents one of them - Pittsburgh's U.S. attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. Congress interviewed her a few weeks ago as part of the investigation into the prosecutor firings. Howard says one of the worst consequences of this scandal is the impact it could have on the Justice Department's credibility in the courtroom.

Mr. HOWARD: For the most part, when you're the Justice Department, you walk into a courtroom and you're saying to the jury: trust me. We're the Justice Department. We are bringing this because you need to trust us. And for the most part, if you look around the country, it works.

SHAPIRO: Howard says you now get the opposite effect. Defense attorneys argue that their clients were indicted because of politics, and news stories give their claims credence. Former prosecutor Aitan Goelman says it makes the job harder for line prosecutors trying a case.

Mr. GOELMAN: This kind of story and this kind of image of a Department of Justice that's you politicized and where decisions are based on, you know, people's party affiliation instead of the evidence, it creates a higher burden for a prosecutor to try to overcome.

SHAPIRO: In trials across the country, defense lawyers have been filing motions, arguing that their clients are the victims of political persecution. Judges may not accept their claims. But former prosecutor Sam Buell, who tried the Enron case, says it's still a hurdle for the government.

Professor SAMUEL BUELL (Law, University of Texas; Former Prosecutor): And if the whole point of prosecuting public corruption cases, for example, is to kind of restore public confidence in the government, then the point is really kind of wiped out; if people are led to believe that the decisions about which cases are getting prosecuted are themselves being made for political reasons.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Justice Department lawyers do much more than try public corruption cases. And Republican former Justice official Stuart Gerson says a lot of the department's work is continuing as normal despite the scandal.

Mr. STUART GERSON (Lawyer): The Civil Division, for example, which I once headed, is the largest component of the Justice Department. It represents the federal agencies when they get sued. It also conducts affirmative litigation to recover money on their behalf.

SHAPIRO: Those kinds of cases probably won't change much no matter how bad the scandal gets. The controversy has not only taken a toll on line prosecutors, it's also knocked off some of the Justice Department's top political leadership, including the number two man at Justice, Paul McNulty. Still, when he appeared at a recent congressional hearing, McNulty was positive about department morale.

Mr. PAUL McNULTY (Former Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice): I think the morale at the department is generally good. I think people, again, love what they're doing and are fulfilling their responsibilities in a very excellent way.

SHAPIRO: McNulty's predecessor as deputy attorney general was Jim Comey. Comey gave a much bleaker assessment when he testified before Congress, saying morale at the department took a hit from this controversy. When asked how the department's credibility could be repaired, Comey replied, time and distance.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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