The Justice Department's inspector general told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that politicized hiring at the department was not just a case of a few bad apples — as the attorney general has described. Glenn Fine, head of Justice's watchdog office, told lawmakers that illegal politicization at the department was "serious, significant, and systemic."
Bush administration officials kept liberals out of jobs even if they were well qualified, Fine said, and they hired conservatives who were sometimes less qualified.
Still, he said he does not think any criminal prosecutions are in order.
In two recent reports on politicized hiring at Justice, Fine has described the way partisanship influenced hiring across the department — from entry-level interns to senior prosecutors. The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility issued a report on June 24 outlining hiring practices in the honor and intern programs; on July 28, the group released a report on hiring done by Monica Goodling, White House liaison and senior counsel to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said the problem was limited to a handful of bad actors who have mostly left the department. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) took the same view at the hearing. "What I'm seeing is low-level politicization and incompetence above it," Coburn said.
Fine said that's not the case.
"These are high officials in the Department of Justice," including Goodling and Kyle Sampson, who was Gonzales' chief of staff, Fine said.
Fine said there were also junior people who were allowed to turn Justice Department policy on its head. For example, he said the department's honors program was highly politicized.
That program is the main way new law school graduates enter the Justice Department. Many people hired through the program spend their whole careers at Justice. In 2006, Fine said, Justice Department managers set up a screening committee for honors program applicants. Attorney Esther Slater McDonald was assigned to be on the committee.
"She'd been at the department for less than a month," Fine said. "She was a junior attorney. She was not even given instructions on what to look for. I think that's negligent."
According to the inspector general's June 24 report, McDonald rejected Rhodes Scholars and top graduates of the best law schools if those people had a whiff of liberalism. If people seemed conservative, McDonald accepted them whether they were qualified or not. Fine said this was "a serious problem that had implications throughout the Department of Justice."
But Fine told lawmakers he does not believe anyone can be prosecuted for their actions.
"It violated department policy and federal civil service law, but not criminal law. It's not a criminal statute," he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was not satisfied.
"I'm sure it sticks in many people's craws that these were horrible things that were done, and simply because you resign from the department, you escape without any punishment," Schumer said.
Fine said he does not think the people who broke the rules have escaped without any punishment. They've been publicly exposed. They may never work in the federal government again. And, Fine said, they could be disbarred, which would prevent them from working as lawyers in the future.
Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said that still leaves people at the Justice Department in jobs they may not have won legitimately.
"The idea that it has no effect that lingers in the department is just not realistic," Whitehouse said.
Whitehouse asked whether Fine could say that everyone hired through the flawed process is qualified.
"No I can't," Fine replied.