By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Justice Department investigators have widened an internal probe of the firings of U.S. attorneys to include a broader examination of hiring practices at the sprawling department, including the troubled Civil Rights Division and programs for beginning lawyers, officials said yesterday.
"We have expanded the scope of our investigation to include allegations regarding improper political or other considerations in hiring decisions within the Department of Justice," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, wrote in joint letters to the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
The widening inquiry is likely to pose an additional challenge for Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who is already facing lawmakers' calls for his resignation and a potential no-confidence vote by the Senate. While the U.S. attorney dismissals have prompted wide political criticism, improper hiring practices could be deemed a violation of the law.
Justice officials had previously disclosed that Fine and Jarrett's investigation would include hiring decisions made by Monica M. Goodling, a former Gonzales aide who confirmed last week in Senate testimony that she "crossed the line" in considering political affiliation when hiring career prosecutors and immigration judges.
Federal law and internal Justice Department rules bar taking such affiliations into account in hiring career personnel, the Justice Department has said. Yesterday's letter revealed that the internal inquiry will examine the hiring practices of Justice officials besides Goodling and outside the attorney general's office.
The expansion comes in the wake of claims by former Justice officials that selections by the Attorney General's Honors Program and the department's Summer Law Intern Program were rigged in favor of candidates with connections to conservative or Republican groups. In response, the department this spring agreed to place them back under the control of career officials.
The programs were overseen last year by Michael J. Elston, chief of staff to Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, and both Elston and McNulty approved the recent change.
The inquiry will also look at hiring practices within the Civil Rights Division, from which dozens of career lawyers have departed. The career personnel repeatedly clashed with Bush administration political appointees, who overruled them on pivotal voting-rights cases in Georgia and Texas.
One former senior official in the Civil Rights Division, Bradley Schlozman, replaced one of the fired U.S. attorneys -- Todd P. Graves of Kansas City, Mo. -- and attracted controversy by indicting four workers involved in a voter registration drive sponsored by a liberal group days before the November elections. Both Schlozman and Graves are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A Gonzales spokesman declined to comment on the broadening of the probe. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate panel, said in a statement that it reinforces "the need for meaningful congressional oversight of this Justice Department and the Bush administration." The head of the House panel, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), said he is concerned that "political litmus tests were administered to applicants" inappropriately.
The internal inquiry was initially provoked by last year's coordinated firings of nine prosecutors, some of whom alleged they were removed after improper contact from GOP lawmakers or staffers. Parallel investigations by the House and Senate judiciary panels have focused attention on the conduct of senior Gonzales aides and on White House involvement in the prosecutor removals.
Gonzales, buoyed by strong support from President Bush, has acknowledged mishandling the prosecutor firings but has rebuffed calls to resign from Democrats and some Republicans. Three of Gonzales's senior aides have quit, and McNulty has announced he will leave this summer.
Fine and Jarrett, who began their joint probe in March, could recommend internal disciplinary actions and have the power to refer cases for criminal prosecution. A final report will be made public, officials said.
Justice officials said yesterday that a prosecutor at the center of the firings scandal, interim U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin of Little Rock, is leaving office effective tomorrow. Griffin, a former Republican National Committee researcher and aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove, replaced fired prosecutor Bud Cummins.
Griffin withdrew his nomination as a permanent replacement amid uproar over his appointment.