July 29, 2008 in Nation/World

Justice hiring improper, report finds

Employees picked for conservative views
By Marisa Taylor McClatchy
 

What’s at stake

Discrimination based on political affiliation when hiring career employees violates federal hiring laws, but it isn’t a crime. The most severe punishment for such misconduct would be firing, and most officials singled out in the report have resigned voluntarily.

WASHINGTON – Top aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales violated federal laws and Justice Department policies by selecting employees based on their conservative and Republican leanings, a joint report by two department watchdog agencies concluded Monday.

The report by the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility found that in some instances, especially involving the hiring of immigration judges, the improper screening was “systematic.”

“This resulted in high-quality candidates for important department positions being rejected because of improper political considerations,” Inspector General Glenn Fine said.

Investigators also found that three Justice Department officials had provided inaccurate information to Congress, Fine’s investigators and their own department. The Justice Department still employs one of them, John Nowacki.

The report is the second to find that department officials disproportionately weeded out candidates with liberal credentials and hired those with conservative affiliations. The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility also found that several other former Justice Department officials were improperly screening candidates for the department’s honors program and summer internships.

According to a tally from both reports, at least seven officials used improper hiring practices.

In a statement Monday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the findings disturbed him. “I have said many times, both to members of the public and to department employees, it is neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees,” he said.

The latest report didn’t dispute Gonzales’ claim that his aides violated hiring laws without his knowledge. In a statement that Gonzales and his lawyer issued Monday, the former attorney general reiterated that defense and deflected responsibility for the way that politics influenced his department’s hiring.

“It’s simply not possible for any Cabinet officer to be completely aware of and micromanage the activities of staffers, particularly where they don’t inform him of what’s going on,” his lawyer George J. Terwilliger III said.

Administration critics disputed the characterization, contending that the two reports found that high-level administration officials were to blame.

“The policies and attitudes of this administration encouraged politicization of the department and permitted these excesses,” charged Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It is now clear that these politically rooted actions were widespread, and could not have been done without at least the tacit approval of senior department officials.”


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