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Monica's Own Monica Problem

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 24, 2007

In Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department, Democrats and liberals who were denied civil service jobs were said to have a "Monica Problem."

After yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing, the Justice Department has a Monica Problem of its own.

The source of the metastasizing Monica Problem (not to be confused with the previous president's Monica Problem) is Monica Goodling, a graduate of Pat Robertson's law school who was the Justice Department's enforcer of partisan purity until she resigned and investigations began. In a full day of testimony, she accused the No. 2 Justice official of giving false testimony to Congress, implied that Gonzales himself had improperly tried to influence her testimony, and generally described Gonzales's Justice Department as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican National Committee.

"I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions," the trembling young witness told the committee after securing immunity from prosecution for her testimony. "I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions."

"Was that legal?" demanded Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Under the witness table, Goodling wrung her hands and rubbed her bracelet. She drew a deep breath. "I know I crossed the line," she admitted.

So, apparently, did Paul McNulty, who has already announced his resignation as deputy attorney general. Goodling said he was "not fully candid" in his testimony to Congress about the White House's role in the replacement of U.S. attorneys.

And speaking of line crossers, there was that "uncomfortable" meeting when Gonzales seemed to be trying to coach Goodling's testimony. Days before she resigned, the attorney general presented his version of the firings ("Let me tell you what I remember") and asked for her reaction. "I didn't know that it was maybe appropriate," Goodling said.

Republicans must have known they had a problem on their hands, for they moved with dispatch to create diversions. Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah) opted to read into the record a lengthy editorial comparing Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) to Tony Soprano. Rep. Dan Lundgren (Calif.) delivered a 250-word speech praising his own glorious service as his state's attorney general.

The only break Republicans got all day came from a neophyte Democrat on the committee, Steve Cohen (Tenn.), who decided to poke fun at the educational pedigree of Goodling, Regent University law school Class of '99 ("top 10.5 percent of class," reported her résumé).

"The mission of the law school you attended, Regent, is to bring to bear upon legal education and the legal profession the will of almighty God," he said. "What is the will of almighty God, our creator, on the legal profession?"

"I'm not sure that I could define that question for you," Goodling answered.

Cohen continued: "Are you aware of the fact that in your graduating class, 50 to 60 percent of the students failed the bar the first time?"

"I know it wasn't good," she conceded.

Republicans erupted in groans and cries of "bigotry." "Regent University students won the American Bar Association's Negotiation Competition February 11," protested Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Goodling had been the subject of considerable speculation as her testimony was delayed for weeks by her immunity negotiations. Would she be a modern-day Fawn Hall, defending her bosses the way Ollie North's secretary once fought for him? Or would she be the woman with powerful tear ducts described by her colleague David Margolis as having sobbed in his office for "30 to 45 minutes" when the scandal broke.

But Goodling was neither. Her trembling fingers gave away her nerves, but she made clear from the start that she hadn't come to take the fall: At the top of her written testimony, bold and underlined, was the sentence "The Deputy Attorney General's Allegations are False."

With the assistance of committee Democrats, Goodling quickly established that she had little preparation for the senior job she held at the Justice Department. Asked about her previous experience making personnel decisions, Goodling began her answer by noting that she was student body president in college.

But Democrats quickly realized that Goodling, who worked for the RNC before joining the Justice Department, was of more use to them as a savvy operative than as an ingenue. Their questions encouraged her to paint political considerations at Justice as so pervasive that she couldn't quantify them.

How many job applicants did she block because of political leanings? "I wouldn't be able to give you a number." Did she ask aspiring civil servants whom they voted for? "I may have." Did she screen applicants for career prosecutor jobs so that Republicans landed in those positions? "I think that I probably did." How many times? "I don't think that I could have done it more than 50 times, but I don't know." She further admitted that she "occasionally" researched career applicants' political affiliations and checked their political donations.

Legally, this could all add up to a major Monica Problem for Goodling, who brought three high-priced lawyers with her to the hearing. "I intend to establish a legal defense fund at some point," she told the committee.

Here's guessing that Gonzales and McNulty won't be contributing.

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