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No charges expected in scandal

THE WORLD

The Justice Dept.'s hiring abuses violated civil service laws but were not crimes, the attorney general says.

August 13, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey said Tuesday that the Justice Department had no plans to bring criminal charges in connection with hiring abuses that took place under his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales.

Mukasey said the findings in two recent reports by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine -- that a group of influential Gonzales aides considered politics and ideology in hiring career employees and summer interns -- were "disturbing."

The aides violated civil service laws and department regulations, Mukasey said, but they did not commit crimes that could send them to jail.

"Where there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing, we vigorously investigate it. And where there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we vigorously prosecute," Mukasey said in a speech to the American Bar Assn. in New York. "But not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime."

The decision not to prosecute means that some of the best-known figures in the scandal -- such as Monica M. Goodling, a lawyer and public affairs officer who became a powerful gatekeeper in the department under Gonzales -- will likely emerge relatively unscathed.

In a report last month, Goodling and Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, were found to have violated department regulations and civil service laws by considering political views and other factors in deciding whether to recommend hiring immigration judges and other career employees.

Michael J. Elston, a top aide to then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty, was faulted in an earlier report for politicizing the hiring of summer interns and attorneys for the department's honors program.

Violation of federal civil service laws can, in the most extreme cases, lead to dismissal from the government. But since Goodling, Sampson and Elston left the Justice Department last year, they can no longer be sanctioned.

"The attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement officer, seems intent on insulating this administration from accountability," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday.

Because key aspects of the scandal -- including the possible involvement of White House aides -- remain unknown, Mukasey's remarks were "premature," Leahy said.

Mukasey didn't rule out charges arising from two other reports that Fine is preparing, including one related to the politically charged dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. He also denied that those who engaged in misconduct had suffered no consequences.

"The officials most directly implicated in the misconduct left the department to the accompaniment of substantial negative publicity," he said. "Their misconduct has now been laid bare by the Justice Department for all to see."

Lawyers for Sampson, now a partner at a Washington law firm, and Goodling, believed to be a public relations consultant, declined to comment. A lawyer for Elston, also a Washington law firm partner, couldn't be reached.

Among the Justice Department's 100,000 employees are a limited number of political appointees who hold policymaking positions, but most are career civil servants. The law permits ideology to be taken into account in hiring policymakers but not civil servants.

Even before Gonzales resigned last fall, the department had taken a number of steps to purge politics from the hiring process.

Some critics had suggested that the department go a step further and fire or reassign employees hired through the flawed process. Mukasey said he would not do that.

"The people hired in an improper way did not, themselves, do anything wrong," he told the lawyers' group. Taking action against them, he said, "would be unfair and quite possibly illegal."

--

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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