An internal Justice Department investigation released Monday has concluded that senior officials broke the law by hiring immigration and other officials based on partisan considerations. The report — issued by the inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility — culminates an investigation that lasted more than a year, stemming from the firing of seven U.S. attorneys in one day in 2006.
The report focuses on some of the senior officials in the circle of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Specifically, the report names senior counselor and White House liaison Monica Goodling and Gonzales' chief of staff, Kyle Sampson. Both have left the department. Another official, John Nowacki, still works at the Justice Department, and the report recommends disciplining him for knowingly issuing false press statements.
The report concludes that Goodling, Sampson and others broke the law by considering political and ideological affiliations in selecting immigration judges, federal prosecutors and other candidates for jobs that are supposed to be free from politics.
According to the report, Goodling would regularly ask job applicants:
"What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?"
"Aside from the president, give us an example of someone currently or recently in public service who you admire."
"Why are you a Republican?"
One applicant told investigators that when he told Goodling he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Goodling frowned and commented, "But she's pro-choice."
According to the report, Goodling knew that what she was doing was wrong. She would give career applicants questionnaires that were only supposed to be for political jobs. If the applicant pointed it out, she would say it was a mistake and take away the questionnaire.
"This is the way you ruin a really stellar government agency," former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who served during the Clinton administration, told NPR. "The credibility of the Department of Justice depends on the American people understanding and believing that the process for administration of justice is completely nonpartisan, and when you undermine that, you grievously harm the American people."
Goodling's attorney, Jeffrey King, released a statement saying: "Each and every one of the core conclusions of the OIG/OPR report released today is consistent with, and indeed derived from, Ms. Goodling's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee."
The report says Goodling screened hundreds of job applicants in many different parts of the Justice Department.
One experienced counterterrorism prosecutor did not get a job in Washington because his wife was a Democrat. As a result, the report says, a much less experienced but politically acceptable attorney was assigned to handle counterterrorism issues.
The inspector general also concluded that Goodling ousted Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie A. Hagen from her assignment in Washington and blocked her from other positions based on Goodling's belief that Hagen was a lesbian.
NPR first broke that story last spring. Hagen's lawyer, Lisa Banks, told NPR that Goodling's actions were devastating to Hagen's career. "She's a 20-year prosecutor with an unblemished record of excellent performance [and] departmental awards, and when Monica Goodling and this administration believed that she might be gay, all of a sudden her career was completely derailed," Banks says.
Goodling was not the only one responsible for politicized hiring. According to the report, Kyle Sampson took the lead on hiring immigration judges. He was the attorney general's chief of staff, and he treated immigration judges as political appointments instead of the career jobs that they are, taking recommendations from the White House and other Republican officials.
Crystal Williams, of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association, said the report's findings are not a surprise to those who've been watching the changing profile of the country's immigration courts.
"We've seen some people who perhaps were very helpful in the Florida elections in 2000 and who really have no other qualifications or knowledge of immigration who might be sitting in an immigration judge position now," Williams says.
In a press release, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he was disturbed by the report's 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 hiring of career department employees," Mukasey said. He also noted that the Justice Department has made many institutional changes to remedy the problems discussed in the report and will make more.
Today's report says Attorneys General Alberto Gonzales and John Ashcroft were not aware that Goodling, Sampson and others were breaking the law.
One senior Justice official who worked very closely with Goodling reacted to the report this way: "I didn't realize how widespread Monica's activity was, or how she got away with it. She was definitely on a mission. I had no clue."