Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Loyal Bushies Hiring Guide

The Loyal Bushies Hiring Guide

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Last year, Alberto Gonzales resigned as attorney general after he could not explain why the Justice Department had fired several qualified U.S. attorneys who had prosecuted Republican officials or declined to pursue cases against Democrats. "Now it turns out that the politicization of the Justice Department under President Bush went even deeper," the Boston Globe writes today. A report by the Justice Department Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that scores of highly qualified young lawyers and law students were denied interviews for the Department's Honors Program and Summer Law Internship Program (SLIP) because of political views and affiliations, indicating that "political appointees who are no longer with the department had violated department policy and the Civil Service Reform Act." The report is the first in a series of investigations resulting from the U.S. Attorney scandal, confirming "for the first time in an official examination" allegations that the Department had become overly-politicized under President Bush. "It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) observed.

GETTING RID OF THE 'ANARCHISTS': The process of filling honors and intern positions, "traditionally carried out by career attorneys in the department, was changed in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to give political appointees a role in screening applicants," in response to what some officials saw as a "liberal tilt" in recruiting young lawyers. Subsequently, in 2002, of 100 "liberals" nominated for the Honors Program, 80 percent were "deselected." But of 46 "conservatives" nominated, only 9 percent were "deselected." Esther McDonald, who left the department in 2007, sent colleagues a Nov. 29, 2006 e-mail complaining about "leftist commentary." McDonald repeatedly tried to root out "anarchists" or "leftists" in the application process. According to the report, McDonald gathered information to determine the politics of applicants by looking at blogs, MySpace pages, school newspapers, and old articles. "Membership in liberal organizations like the American Constitution Society, Greenpeace, or the Poverty and Race Research Action Council were also seen as negative marks," the Wall Street Journal noted. Complaints from career officials about the hiring process decreased after 2002 but flared up again in 2006, when candidates for the Honors Program, for example, were "weeded out at three times the rate of conservative-leaning applicants." Gonzales was appointed attorney general in 2005.

OLD PLAYERS REVISITED: Last year, Monica Goodling, a former aide to Gonzales, acknowledged that she had "taken inappropriate political considerations into account" while hiring career employees at the Department. The new report further implicates Goodling, revealing that she helped hire some of the officials who considered partisanship and ideology in the hiring process. For example, in 2006, she interviewed the relatively inexperienced McDonald, who was soon hired as Counsel to Acting Associate Attorney General William Mercer.Weeks later, Mercer assigned her to the Honors Program/SLIP Screening Committee. Furthermore, Goodling directed Michael Elston to lead the selection committee in 2006. The Inspector General report criticized Elston "for failing to supervise McDonald and for weeding out candidates on his own based on 'impermissible considerations.'" In the U.S. Attorney scandal, Elston "assembled one of the lists of prosecutors to be considered for removal. Four of the dismissed prosecutors said they later received inappropriate telephone calls from Elston, who allegedly warned some of them that they would suffer retaliation if they spoke publicly about their firings."

A DEEPER PROBLEM?: Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Tuesday that using politics in hiring career lawyers was "impermissible and unacceptable" and that the department has implemented new procedures to remove politics from the hiring process. Nevertheless, the report raises larger questions about Justice Department politicization, specifically whether politics affected prosecutions. "The department's bald denials that politics never affected the cases under investigation simply cannot be taken at face value," said Conyers. Among those under scrutiny are prosecutions involving former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, Missouri Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., and Wisconsin state procurement official Georgia Thompson. As Stephen Hurley, an attorney representing Thompson, noted, "What they've said is politics played a role in personnel decisions. The question is did it play any role in decisions to prosecute." The inspector general is still investigating other issues related to alleged politicization of the Justice Department, including the central question of why nine U.S. attorneys were fired in late 2006.

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