George W. Bush, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. (Photo: Getty Images)
Washington - Top aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales broke the law by letting politics influence the hiring of career prosecutors and immigration judges at the Justice Department, says an internal report released Monday.
Gonzales was largely unaware of the hiring decisions by two of his most trusted aides, according to the report by Justice's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility.
But it singles out his former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, for violating federal law and Justice Department policy by discriminating against job applicants who weren't Republican or conservative loyalists.
"Goodling improperly subjected candidates for certain career positions to the same politically based evaluation she used on candidates for political positions," the report concluded.
In one instance, Justice investigators found, Goodling objected to hiring an assistant prosecutor in Washington because "judging from his resume, he appeared to be a liberal Democrat."
In another, she rejected an experienced terror prosecutor to work on counterterror issues at a Justice Department headquarters office "because of his wife's political affiliations," the report found. It also found she rejected at least one job applicant who was rumored to be a lesbian.
Goodling's attorney, John Dowd, declined comment Monday. Attempts to reach her were not immediately successful.
Additionally, a majority of immigration judge candidates considered by former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson were recommended by the White House's political affairs office - including one name forwarded by then-top adviser Karl Rove. Sampson told investigators that he did not consider those jobs to be protected from political considerations.
His lawyer, Brad Berenson, described those hiring decisions as an honest mistake and said that Sampson "immediately agreed with the recommendation to put a stop to this process" when he first learned he may have been wrong.
The federal government makes a distinction between so-called "career" appointees and "political" appointees, and the long-accepted custom has been that career workers are not hired on the basis of political affiliation or allegiance.
The 140-page report does not indicate whether Goodling or Sampson could face any charges. None of those involved in the discriminatory hiring still work at Justice, meaning they will avoid any departmental penalties.
However, Justice investigators said that bar associations that license lawyers have asked about the report's findings on Goodling - indicating she could be sanctioned there, potentially including losing her ability to practice law.
Congressional investigators said they also were considering asking the Justice Department to pursue perjury charges against Goodling, Sampson and possibly Gonzales as a result of their spoken or written congressional testimony during House and Senate investigations last year. Lying to Congress is a crime.
Democrats said the report affirms their charges of White House meddling in the hiring and firing of Justice Department employees.
"The cost to our nation of these apparent crimes was severe, as qualified individuals were rejected for key positions in the fight against terrorism and other critical department jobs for no reason other than political whim," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.
"The report also indicates that Monica Goodling, Kyle Sampson, and Alberto Gonzales may have lied to the Congress about these matters," Conyers added. "I have directed my staff to closely review this matter and to consider whether a criminal referral for perjury is needed."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said "it is crystal clear that the law was broken" by the political hiring process.
"But since it is unlikely that Monica Goodling acted on her own," Schumer added, "the question is, how many others were involved."
In their report, Justice investigators sought to find whether Republican politics were driving hiring polices at the nation's premier law enforcement agency whose appointees are expected to be selected on a nonpartisan basis. The investigation is one of several that examine accusations that Bush administration politics drove prosecution, policy and employment decisions within the Justice Department.
Those accusations were initially spurred by the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in late 2006 and culminated with Gonzales' resignation under fire as attorney general last September.
Gonzales, who has kept a low profile since leaving the department said in a statement that "political considerations should play no part in the hiring of career officials at the Department of Justice. ...I agree with the report's recommendations." His attorney, George Terwilliger, defended Gonzales by saying "it's simply not possible for any Cabinet officer to be completely aware of and micromanage the activities of staffers, particularly where they don't inform him of what's going on."
The man who replaced Gonzales, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, said he is "of course disturbed" by the 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 the hiring of career department employees," Mukasey said in a statement shortly after the report was released Monday morning. "And I have acted, and will continue to act, to ensure that my words are translated into reality so that the conduct described in this report does not occur again at the department."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the report indicates that the effort to politicize federal law enforcement was not just the actions of a few "bad apples," but administration policy.
He called it "a clear indication of the untoward political influence of the Bush administration on traditionally nonpolitical appointments."
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
The DOJ report can be found at: http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/special/s0807/final.pdf