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Probe finds illegal hiring at Justice Dept.

Promising lawyers and law students were rejected over political and ideological views, investigators say.

June 25, 2008|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Scores of highly credentialed young lawyers and law students were denied interviews for coveted positions at the Justice Department because of an illegal screening process that took political and ideological views and affiliations into account rather than merit, Justice Department investigators concluded in a report released Tuesday.

In 2006, some applicants for sought-after jobs in the department's honors and summer intern programs were rejected because they were members of the American Constitution Society or Planned Parenthood or because they expressed concern about gender discrimination in the military, the report says.

Other students or graduates brushed aside include a University of Alabama law graduate, ranked sixth in the class, who had written a paper on the detention of foreigners under the USA Patriot Act; a Yale Law School graduate who was fluent in Arabic; and a Georgetown law student who had worked for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign.

Justice Department officials told investigators that the applicants were turned down because of academic performance. But most if not all of them had superior records, and those explanations were not credible, the report says.

Career employees and other senior officials complained openly about bias in the process, but their concerns were ignored, investigators found.

The findings are contained in the first of several official reports expected on the tenure of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, and on allegations that the longtime friend and confidant of President Bush allowed political considerations to influence the hiring of career employees and other functions at the Justice Department.

Though the report does not directly accuse Gonzales of misconduct, two Justice officials were found to have violated federal civil service law and department regulations in connection with the screening process. Two other officials were criticized for exercising poor judgment and failing to aggressively address the issue of illegal hiring after concerns of career employees surfaced.

Investigators said they were unable to conclude who gave the orders to start employing a political litmus test, though the report says some of the people interviewed pointed to former Gonzales aide Monica M. Goodling, who resigned last year after acknowledging in sworn testimony that she might have violated the law in evaluating applicants for career positions. Many of the records associated with the interviews were destroyed, the report says.

"Today's report confirms that the Bush administration was engaged in a deliberate effort to inject partisan politics into the administration of justice," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The honors and summer intern programs, he said, "were made into a recruitment firm for conservatives, rewarding ideology with career advancement."

The Justice Department last year implemented new procedures to remove the taint of politics from the hiring process. Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey said Tuesday that the department was implementing additional reform measures recommended by authors of the report.

"I have . . . made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable," he said.

The report was prepared jointly by the department's Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility, and it focuses on suspected hiring abuses from 2002 through 2006.

The process of filling honors and intern positions, traditionally carried out by career attorneys in the department, was changed in 2002 by then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to give political appointees a role in screening applicants.

The investigation found some evidence that conservative applicants in 2002 fared better than their left-leaning counterparts because of the changes. It found that hiring bias appeared to fade from 2003 through 2005 but resumed in 2006. Gonzales became attorney general in 2005.

Much of the report's focus is on a 2003 law school graduate, Esther Slater McDonald, who was hired as a counsel to acting Associate Atty. Gen. William Mercer in June 2006 after being recommended by former Gonzales aide Goodling. Despite her inexperience, McDonald was named to the three-person committee that decided which applicants recommended by department sections would get interviews for the highly competitive intern and honors jobs.

Both Goodling and McDonald declined to be interviewed by investigators.

According to a November 2006 e-mail unearthed by investigators, McDonald voted against certain candidates because their essays used "leftist commentary and buzzwords" such as "environmental justice" and "social justice."

The report says some Justice officials grew concerned when highly regarded candidates they recommended were being snubbed.

Peter D. Keisler, then an assistant attorney general, told investigators that he raised concerns with the chairman of the screening panel, Michael J. Elston.

"You should know that there's a lot of people who believe that these deselections are either irrational or so irrational that they are motivated by politics, and that's a problem, you know," Keisler recalled telling Elston.

Elston told investigators that he thought he applied the standards fairly, and he indicated surprise at the number of rejections of liberal applicants.

The report concludes that both McDonald and Elston violated department policies and civil service laws. They resigned from the department -- McDonald the day before she was scheduled to meet with investigators last October -- and are no longer subject to discipline.

Attorneys for Elston and McDonald did not return e-mail and phone messages seeking comment.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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