WASHINGTON — U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales last year gave two of his aides who now are embroiled in the U.S. attorneys affair the power to select dozens of political appointees in the Justice Department, documents show.
In a previously undisclosed move, Gonzales approved an order in March 2006 that delegated to his chief of staff and the department's White House liaison broad authority over 135 department positions designated for political appointees, a copy of the order obtained by The Times shows.
Their authority did not cover high-level positions that required Senate confirmation, such as the 93 U.S. attorneys.
Gonzales' chief of staff at the time was D. Kyle Sampson, who resigned in March after it became known that he was the point man on the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
Not long after the order was signed, the position of White House liaison was filled by Monica M. Goodling, a former Justice Department public affairs officer. She recently resigned because of disclosures about her role in the firings.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill, where two committees are investigating allegations of improper political interference at the Justice Department, said they were troubled by the disclosure and how Sampson and Goodling might have exercised their powers.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said the Gonzales memo should have been turned over to Congress as part of document requests made in the U.S. attorney inquiry.
The order, first reported Monday by the National Journal, was downplayed by the Justice Department and other observers. They said it merely made official a long-standing department practice of involving staff members in filling the political ranks that ebb and flow with changing administrations.
Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said the attorney general remained responsible for the staff appointments.
"The order gives the chief of staff and the White House liaison the authority to execute certain decisions regarding hiring and termination of some noncareer employees with, as the memo states, the approval of the attorney general," he said.
Others said it was unremarkable that politics would come into play in the selection of political appointees.
"It is not unusual for the chief of staff to have signatory authority over most anything in the attorney general's office," said one former senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing congressional investigation. "It is the reality of the paper flow. You are talking about an agency of 100,000 employees."
The jobs over which the aides were given clout spanned a wide spectrum of responsibilities. They included recent college graduates hired to clip newspaper articles and deputies to top officials in the department's criminal and civil divisions.
It is not clear whether the aides' authority extended to interim U.S. attorneys, which do not require confirmation. Those positions, and a law authorizing Gonzales to fill them, have become a lightning rod in the debate over whether the Bush administration tried to bypass the traditional confirmation process and politicize U.S. attorney offices.
Like Gonzales' delegation order, the law authorizing the attorney general to appoint interim prosecutors without Senate hearings was enacted in March 2006.
It is unknown what hiring and firing decisions the aides made. A lawyer for Sampson declined to comment; Goodling's lawyer could not be reached.
The documents surfaced Monday as the department's hiring practices have come under scrutiny from House and Senate investigators and, more recently, the Office of Special Counsel.
Democrats said they were concerned about the timing of Gonzales' order -- it was issued as plans to replace U.S. attorneys were being hatched -- and the secrecy with which the policy was promulgated.
Leahy called the documents evidence "of an effort to hard-wire control over law enforcement by White House political operatives."
"The mass firing of U.S. attorneys appeared to be part of a systematic scheme to inject political influence into the hiring and firing decisions of key Justice employees," Leahy said.
He said he was disturbed "to learn that the attorney general was granting extraordinary and sweeping authority to the same political operatives who were plotting with the White House to dilute our system of checks and balances in the confirmation of U.S. attorneys."
The documents showed that some Justice Department officials had concerns about whether it was legal for Gonzales to delegate the authority to his staff.
One document instructed that the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, which traditionally runs the department's day-to-day operations, should be "bypassed on this package."
A Feb. 24, 2006, memo from Paul Corts, an assistant attorney general, cited concerns in the department's Office of Legal Counsel that delegating the authority might violate the Constitution, which makes government department heads responsible for appointments.
The amended order that Gonzales signed a few days later included language making him ultimately responsible for any decisions his staff made.
Another former senior Justice Department official described Gonzales' move as "unusual but not necessarily untoward."
"Typically, delegations of authority are not done to staff people; they are done to people in the chain of command," the former official said.
"The staff people generally don't have the same level of responsibility and accountability. They could be slipping some political friend or hack into a sensitive position."