WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has broadened an internal investigation into whether aides to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales improperly took into account political considerations in hiring employees, officials familiar with the probe said Thursday.
The expanded inquiry, conducted by the department's inspector general and its Office of Professional Responsibility, comes after testimony Wednesday by former Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling.
She told a House committee that she had considered party affiliation in screening applicants to become immigration judges.
The Justice Department said it could find no record to support claims by Goodling that taking politics into account to fill positions on the immigration bench had been approved by department officials.
Goodling is already under investigation on suspicion of violating federal civil service rules and department policy for considering political activity while she conducted reviews of candidates for career prosecutors.
She testified before the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
The internal Justice Department investigation, although focused on Goodling, could turn up embarrassing information about Gonzales' management practices and what, if anything, he knew about the role that politics played in hiring employees protected by civil service laws.
Gonzales' tenure has been shaken by revelations of lax procedures in the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys, prosecutors who serve at the pleasure of the president and whose tenure is not covered by civil service rules.
The handling of the dismissals has prompted many Democrats and some Republicans to call for Gonzales to resign.
Gonzales was targeted for further criticism last week when a former Justice Department official testified that then-White House Counsel Gonzales and another high-ranking administration official had tried to strong-arm a hospitalized John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, into approving a legally contentious surveillance program.
President Bush stands by Gonzales, and he reiterated his support for his longtime aide at a Rose Garden news conference Thursday. He said he thought questions about the conduct of the attorney general were "kind of being drug out" for political reasons.
Bush sidestepped questions about whether he was concerned that the Justice Department had become politicized under Gonzales, deferring to the internal investigation for a judgment.
"If there's wrongdoing, it will be taken care of," Bush said.
The Senate scheduled a no-confidence vote on Gonzales for mid-June. Democrats have expressed hope that the attorney general would consider resigning before the vote, but the White House has dismissed the move as political theater.
Goodling, 33, a former Republican Party operative, was a senior counsel to Gonzales and the department liaison to the White House before resigning in April.
In her testimony, she said she had "crossed the line" and inappropriately considered party affiliation and other political factors in reviewing the qualifications of applicants for assistant U.S. attorney jobs.
She also said she had considered political factors in helping to select immigration judges. She said she thought such action was allowed.
She cited a conversation she had with another Gonzales aide, D. Kyle Sampson, who said the department's Office of Legal Counsel had declared the practice to be lawful.
Justice Department officials said no such opinion existed.
They also denied Goodling's assertion that the hiring of immigration judges had been frozen after the department's civil division raised concerns about using a political litmus test.
"There is no disagreement within the department, including between the civil division and the Office of Legal Counsel, about whether the civil service laws apply to the appointment of immigration judges," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. "They do apply."
Under Goodling's immunity agreement, statements that she made to Congress cannot be used against her. But that does not prohibit the government from filing charges, as long as the evidence comes from other sources.
She also could be prosecuted for perjury if she intentionally made false statements to Congress.