Ideology-Based Hiring at Justice Broke Laws, Investigation Finds

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Senior Justice Department officials broke civil service laws by rejecting scores of young applicants who had links to Democrats or liberal organizations, according to a biting report issued yesterday.

The report by the Justice Department inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that a pair of high-ranking political appointees who are no longer with the department had violated department policy and the Civil Service Reform Act by using ideological reasons to scuttle the candidacy of lawyers who applied to the elite honors and summer intern programs.

In one instance, steering committee member Esther Slater McDonald deemed "unacceptable" an applicant who professed admiration for the environmental group Greenaction and passed over another with ties to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, the report said.

McDonald, who left the Justice Department last year and now works for a law firm in the District, sent colleagues a Nov. 29, 2006, e-mail in which she complained about "leftist commentary and buzzwords" in applications. Many of the underlying documents, on which McDonald and others wrote comments, were destroyed before the probe began, according to the report.

Auditors also criticized Michael J. Elston, former chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, for failing to supervise McDonald and for weeding out candidates on his own based on "impermissible considerations." Elston may have denied one Stanford Law School applicant because she had written a law review article about gender discrimination in the military, the report said. Elston left the Justice Department last year amid questions about his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. He now works at a private law firm.

McDonald and Elston did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday. Experts said they are unlikely to face sanctions for what investigators called deliberate "misconduct" because they have left government employment.

Traditionally, the highly coveted intern and honors jobs had been awarded based on merit. But in 2002, top Justice Department officials moved to give political appointees more control, prompting complaints from the career ranks. The problem flared up again in 2006, when hundreds of applications were rejected for questionable reasons, according to the report.

Candidates for the Honors Program that year whose résumés indicated liberal affiliations were weeded out at three times the rate of conservative-leaning applicants, investigators said. San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who was later fired for reasons that remain under investigation, reached out to no avail to Elston over the decision to reject a candidate who had won a prestigious appellate clerkship with a Democratic judge.

Peter Keisler, then chief of the Justice Department's civil division, called Elston after several applicants to his unit were denied, including a Harvard Law School graduate and former Justice summer intern who had worked as a paralegal at Planned Parenthood, the report said.

The report on the honors and intern programs is the result of the first in a series of investigations into the role that politics may have played in law enforcement and hiring decisions at the Justice Department over the course of the Bush administration. Studies focusing on hiring and enforcement in the troubled civil rights division, the rationale for the U.S. attorneys' dismissal, and the role played by former Justice Department officials including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales could be issued soon, according to lawyers following the issues.

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who replaced Gonzales last year, said he has taken steps to overhaul the hiring process. Considering politics in hires for career slots is "unacceptable," Mukasey said in a statement.

Former Justice Department officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations said the study underscores the challenge for the next president.

"The Honors Program at DOJ has always been the 'A-list,' " said Nicholas M. Gess, a Justice official under President Bill Clinton. "The next attorney general will be stuck with many from the 'B-list."

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