By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
High-ranking political appointees at the Justice Department labored to stock a prestigious hiring program with young conservatives in a five-year-long attempt to reshape the department's ranks, according to an inspector general's report to be released today.
The report will trace the effort to 2002, early in the Bush administration, when key advisers to then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft moved to exert more control over the program to hire rookie lawyers and summer interns, according to two people familiar with the probe.
The honors program, which each year places about 150 law school graduates with top credentials in a rotation of Justice jobs, historically had operated under the control of senior career officials. Shifting control of the program to Ashcroft's advisers prompted charges of partisanship from law professors and former government lawyers who had worked under Democratic administrations.
Mark Corallo, a Justice spokesman during Ashcroft's tenure, has said that the overhaul was intended to broaden candidate pools and include students from a range of law schools, not only Ivy League institutions. The strategy persisted until tension among political appointees and career staff members came to a head in mid-2007.
Corallo said yesterday that Ashcroft, who now runs a consulting firm, will not comment until the report is made public.
Critics in the department had argued that hundreds of high-quality applicants had been rejected because of their ties to left-leaning nonprofit groups or clerkships with Democratic judges and lawmakers, according to correspondence at the time. One Harvard Law School graduate said that when he applied for the honors program a few years ago he was warned by professors and fellow students to remove any liberal affiliations from his résumé.
Concerned Justice employees also raised alarms last year by sending a letter to lawmakers who had been examining whether political considerations led to the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.
In response, Justice officials last year said they had returned control over the honors and intern programs to career lawyers.
The report by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility chief H. Marshall Jarrett is the first in a series of studies investigating the role and reach of political appointees in hiring and enforcement at Justice during the Bush years. The studies, which cover the prosecutor firings, problems in the civil rights division and statements by former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, have been hotly anticipated for months.
The internal audit already has produced one grand jury referral. Federal prosecutors in the District recently issued subpoenas to former employees in Justice's civil rights unit as part of a probe into discrepancies in 2007 congressional testimony by Bradley A. Schlozman, an interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo.