Former White House liaison, Monica Goodling, was singled out for violating… (Pete Souza / Chicago Tribune )
WASHINGTON — When Bush administration officials at the Justice Department dismissed nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, there were various theories as to why the prosecutors were being let go.
They were too soft on the death penalty. They did not prosecute enough illegal immigrants. They did not go after enough Democrats.
On Monday, the Justice Department's internal watchdog hinted at perhaps the most sensational justification yet -- perceived homosexuality.
In the second of a series of reports on the politically charged tenure of former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, the department's inspector general found that two former Justice aides used sexual orientation as a litmus test in deciding whom they would hire or fire.
The report describes an alleged "sexual relationship" between a career prosecutor and a U.S. attorney, who were not named. Margaret M. Chiara, the former U.S. attorney in Grand Rapids, Mich., said in an interview with The Times that she now believed she was fired because of the erroneous belief that she was having a relationship with career prosecutor Leslie Hagen.
"I could not begin to understand how I found myself sharing the misfortune of my former colleagues," Chiara said of the eight other U.S. attorneys who were fired. "Now I understand."
Justice officials said after her firing that Chiara was let go because of mismanagement and because she had caused morale in her office to sink. Chiara said Monday she believed those concerns were raised by the same people who spread rumors about her and Hagen.
"I guess now I am persuaded with deep regret that this is what was the basis," she added. "There is nothing else."
The investigators found that Hagen lost a coveted assignment in Washington after rumors of the supposed relationship reached Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling.
Chiara and Hagen told investigators that they did not have a sexual relationship, according to the report. Lawyers for Goodling declined to comment.
The report released Monday provides a more detailed examination of questionable moves made by Goodling and others -- including Gonzales' former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson -- that were revealed during congressional hearings last year.
A former public affairs officer who became the Justice Department's liaison with the White House, Goodling testified under a grant of immunity before the House Judiciary Committee that she had "crossed a line" and allowed political and other impermissible factors to affect her hiring decisions.
The latest disclosures include a finding that Goodling rejected the application of a career terrorism prosecutor for a job at Justice Department headquarters because his wife was active in local Democratic politics. The report said a less-qualified candidate was hired.
Goodling also sought out the advice of the White House and other Republicans in filling vacant immigration judge positions. Goodling -- who declined to be interviewed by the authors of the report -- previously testified that, based on advice from Sampson, she incorrectly had believed that it was legal to consider political factors in selecting judges.
The report found that Gonzales was unaware of many of the hiring decisions, and took action when he realized there were problems.
Gonzales' lawyer, George J. Terwilliger III, said Monday that the report was a measure of vindication for the former attorney general.
Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey said in a statement that he was "of course disturbed" by the findings, and noted that the department had taken action to head off future abuses.
A spokeswoman for Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department inspector general, declined to comment when asked why the report did not address whether Goodling had retaliated against Chiara as well as Hagen.
The office is preparing a separate report on the firings of the nine U.S. attorneys, and some observers speculated that the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Chiara may be addressed there.
Hagen was hired by Chiara in Grand Rapids about a year after Chiara was appointed by President Bush to lead the U.S. attorney's office in western Michigan. The women had known each other since they were county prosecutors together in the 1990s. After Hagen joined the U.S. attorney's office, the women would often commute together to work.
Hagen was hired to focus on crimes affecting Native Americans -- a priority of Chiara's -- and she was successful, winning an award from the director of the administrative office in Washington overseeing U.S. attorneys.
The report does not address how the rumors about sexual orientation began. The report also says there were rumors that the women "took government trips together" and that Hagen "received large bonuses." But it found that allegations about the supposed financial benefits were never investigated or referred for investigation, and thus remained unsubstantiated.
Lisa Banks, Hagen's attorney, said Monday that all of the allegations were untrue.