- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hiring at the Justice Department under former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales became overtly political, and ultimately illegal, because political appointees with little experience and almost no oversight were left to make critical decisions, the department’s internal watchdog said Wednesday.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said the problems were serious and systemic and violated civil law, but added that his office had not yet found any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or a conspiracy involving senior White House officials and Mr. Gonzales.

Several committee members still had harsh words for the Bush administration.

“It really shows when it comes to politics, this is an administration that has no gag reflex,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.

Earlier this week, Mr. Fine’s office released a report indicating that some of Mr. Gonzales’ top aides sought to hire only Republicans or conservatives for certain prosecutor jobs and immigration judgeships.

Political beliefs and affiliations can be considered in the appointment of so-called political jobs at the Justice Department. Considering political leanings for filling jobs such as prosecutors, immigration judges and other so-called career staff is a violation of department policy and federal civil service laws.

Last month, the inspector general released a report highlighting similar problems with hiring for the prestigious Summer Law Intern Program and the department’s Honors Program, the latter of which is the only way for a recent law school graduate to be hired by the Justice Department. Mr. Fine called the program “the backbone of the Department of Justice.”

In an e-mail to staff Wednesday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said he was “disturbed and disappointed” by the reports. He said the department already has taken steps, such as revising the hiring process for career employees, interns and Honors Program candidates, as well as mandated training for political appointees regarding prohibited personnel practices.

“Although the publication of these reports and the headlines they generate are painful for all who work here, they are an important part of determining and acknowledging what went wrong and why it went wrong, and crucial to ensuring that we do not again have to face such problems,” Mr. Mukasey wrote. “Unfortunately, overlooked in many of the headlines and editorials about these reports is the valuable and skillful work you are doing on behalf of the American people.”

Mr. Mukasey said he would continue to work to improve the department, particularly as future reports from the inspector general are expected.

The inspector general is continuing to investigate similar allegations in the department’s civil rights division, as well as the firings of several U.S. attorneys. Mr. Fine said he is not sure when those investigations will be completed.

Some observers suspect the report about the firings of the U.S. attorneys will be highly critical of Mr. Gonzales’ management skills and credibility. So far Mr. Gonzales hasn’t been directly linked to any wrongdoing.

Mr. Fine said Wednesday that Mr. Gonzales told investigators he knew nothing about politicized hiring of prosecutors and immigration judges. He said investigators had no reason to doubt Mr. Gonzales, or anyone else they interviewed.

“In our judgment and the judgment of prosecutors, experienced prosecutors who worked on this case for us, we did not think that there was a sufficient basis for a criminal prosecution for false statements for anyone,” he said.

Several committee members also were concerned about the role of the White House. The inspector general’s report revealed that many recommendations for immigration judgeships came from the White House.

Mr. Fine said Scott Jennings was the only White House employee interviewed by investigators. Mr. Jennings worked in the Office of Political Affairs and provided candidates for immigration judgeships to the Justice Department.

“And why were no others at the White House questioned?” asked Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the committee.

“From the evidence that we had, both e-mails, discussions, we did not see that the others were involved in this process and we questioned the person who was involved,” Mr. Fine said.

Some senators seemed convinced the White House had greater involvement.

Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said the report showed “the extent of the political reach of the White House into the department’s career ranks, an unprecedented activity.”

A White House spokesman said Mr. Leahy’s statements do not reflect the conclusions of the inspector general.

“Senator Leahy’s imagination is boundless,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.

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