By Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 22, 2007
Democratic senators responded caustically yesterday to reports that a former head of the Justice Department's civil rights division pushed aside three minority women on his staff to "make room for some good Americans," as the lawmakers implored his successor to remove all political taint from the agency's work.
Wan Kim, the current assistant attorney general for civil rights, distanced himself from the hiring practices and statements in 2005 of his predecessor, Bradley J. Schlozman, and said he first heard of them hours before they were reported in The Washington Post this week. "At a very minimum, those are intemperate, inopportune remarks," said Kim, the division's second-in-command at the time.
The consternation over the removal of government civil rights lawyers erupted in the Senate as Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty defended himself in the House against allegations he had misled Congress about the firings last year of nine U.S. attorneys.
Although Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has told lawmakers that McNulty was the aide most responsible for the firings, McNulty continued yesterday to say that he played a minimal role in the dismissals and had little direct contact with Gonzales over the matter. Still, McNulty, who has announced he will resign this summer, also provided further evidence of possible partisan considerations in the firings, telling a House Judiciary subcommittee that complaints from a senior Republican senator contributed to the removal of one U.S. attorney.
The developments on both sides of the Capitol yesterday demonstrated that the controversy surrounding the Justice Department continues to expand, five months after the revelations that Gonzales and key aides, working in tandem with the White House, waged a campaign to remove chief federal prosecutors. Lawmakers from both parties have pressed the attorney general to resign.
In the Senate yesterday, Democrats seized on the report that Schlozman had, while acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, removed the female lawyers -- against their supervisors' advice -- as new evidence that the Justice Department under President Bush has been infected by improper political considerations.
"The issues we are discussing today are the equivalent of a five-alarm fire," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told Kim. "I want to know what you are going to do to stop it."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a former U.S. attorney, said: "Over and over again, you see symbols that suggest the [agency's] management was in a state of considerable partisanship. What are you doing right now to remedy this very difficult situation?"
Kim, invited before the Senate Judiciary Committee for what was billed as a routine hearing on the civil rights division's work, said he was not familiar with all that transpired before he took over the civil rights division in November 2005.
He declined to confirm whether Schlozman did, in fact, hire and fire lawyers based on their personal politics, although Schlozman himself has told Congress that he had bragged of hiring Republicans and conservatives. Kim said simply that a pair of internal investigations, being conducted by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility and its inspector general, would uncover any impropriety.
At the same time, Kim told the senators that his own hiring decisions have been free of political ideology. "Talent and competence and ability to me matter, and other things don't matter," he said. Kim also reiterated an assertion he made when he testified before the same committee late last year that staff turnover in the division has been no greater during the Bush administration than during other modern presidencies.
In the House, McNulty argued that he had been fully candid with Congress when he testified in February. "I had no knowledge of any plan to remove U.S. attorneys prior to October of 2006, and therefore no knowledge of any White House contacts or White House involvement," McNulty said yesterday.
McNulty confirmed one element of recent testimony by Monica M. Goodling, a key figure in the plan to fire the prosecutors who was the Justice Department's White House liaison until she stepped down this spring. McNulty confirmed that he had asked Goodling not to attend a congressional briefing on the firings in February because he had not wanted to send a message to lawmakers that politics had played any role in the dismissals.
McNulty also said he did not add anyone to the list of those to be fired. He said, however, that he approved the removal of David C. Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico, in part because of complaints that Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) made about Iglesias.
Iglesias has alleged that Domenici and another GOP lawmaker pressured him to bring indictments against Democrats before the November elections. And GOP complaints about Iglesias were passed along to the White House and Gonzales before Iglesias's inclusion on a Justice firing list.
In addition, McNulty said he had been left out of other key decisions by Gonzales and his aides, including a secret order giving broad hiring powers to Goodling and D. Kyle Sampson, then Gonzales's chief of staff.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) described McNulty as the "caboose" in the firings process and said he had been unfairly singled out for blame. "I think you were poorly treated," Delahunt said.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.