WASHINGTON — Last fall, after Debra Wong Yang announced that she was leaving her job as U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Monica M. Goodling went to work to find a replacement.
Goodling, then the Justice Department's liaison with the White House, helped organize a series of interviews at the department with candidates for the influential post -- much to the surprise of a bipartisan commission in California that had been responsible for screening U.S. attorney candidates in the Golden State.
Goodling's role in the selection process was reined in after a member of the commission complained to senior officials at the White House and the Justice Department. But the incident, described by a person close to the process, underscores the central role in the U.S. attorneys affair played by Goodling, who is set to testify on Capitol Hill today under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
How a 33-year-old graduate of a little-known law school that teaches courses on the philosophy of punishing and controlling "sin" became such a powerful figure in the Justice Department is a key question for congressional investigators looking into charges that the department has been turned into a political tool of the Republican Party.
Goodling, who resigned in April, has come to symbolize what critics see as the triumph of politics over principle at the Justice Department under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Along with D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff, Goodling was one of the gatekeepers in identifying the eight U.S. attorneys who were dismissed last year. Democrats, and some of the fired prosecutors, say they suspect the terminations were politically motivated to help Republican office-seekers.
The Justice Department inspector general is also investigating whether Goodling abused the authority she was given by Gonzales to hire career prosecutors. The watchdog is investigating, among other things, allegations that Goodling used a political litmus test in considering job applicants -- a violation of department rules and federal law.
Through her lawyer, John Dowd, Goodling has denied breaking any laws. Dowd said Tuesday that Goodling would have a prepared statement when she testified today before the House Judiciary Committee. He declined further comment and said Goodling was unavailable for interviews.
Her long-awaited testimony could shed light on the motives behind the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys, including the involvement of the White House and political strategist Karl Rove. She could also deal another blow to Gonzales, whose tenure has been threatened by the scandal.
Critics say that Gonzales, by countenancing the firings, hurt the independence of the Justice Department and revealed himself to be more concerned about doing the bidding of the White House than protecting the department's credibility and integrity.
"People like Monica ... were misguided and didn't get it," said H.E. "Bud" Cummins III, one of the U.S. attorneys dismissed last year. Still, Cummins said, Gonzales and other senior officials deserve the lion's share of the blame. "It is their job to stand up and say, 'No,' " he said in an interview. "There obviously was a failure, no matter whose idea this was, at the top levels of the department to assert independent judgment."
Some of Goodling's former co-workers insist that she has been vilified.
Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman, said Goodling was trying to bring balance to the department, and he ridiculed those who criticized her for trying to screen potential hires based on their political beliefs. The civil rights division, he argued, has long been populated by "some of the most radical Democrats in the law."
He called Goodling "a real perfectionist; an incredibly energetic, good person."
Goodling's rise to power paralleled the growing influence of religious conservatives in the Bush administration in general, and the Justice Department in particular.
In 1999, she earned a degree from the Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach, Va. Founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, Regent University claims 150 past and present members of the Bush administration among its alumni. Accredited by the American Bar Assn., the law school boasts of a "distinctive" Christian-based mission "to bring to bear the will of our Creator, Almighty God, upon legal education and the legal profession," according to its website.
Goodling was an ardent practitioner of her faith, according to former colleagues who -- like most interviewed for this report -- requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about her. Her conservative ideals, they said, were such that she once refused to go to a Justice Department baby shower because the mother was unwed. They also said that she once balked at funding an anti-gun public service video because she thought it promoted rap music and glorified a violent lifestyle.