Mukasey Asked to Watch for Lingerers

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Two leading Senate Democrats asked Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey yesterday to "exercise vigilance" and ensure that political appointees do not improperly wheedle their way into permanent slots at the beleaguered Justice Department.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) wrote to department leaders seeking "personal assurances" that they would monitor employment decisions at Justice as the Bush administration draws to a close.

"When unqualified political appointees take over jobs better left to skilled candidates, it threatens the agency's professionalism and independence," Schumer said. "We don't need ideological stowaways undermining the work of the next administration."

Partisan hiring practices at the department have been under scrutiny for more than a year. Last month, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that appointees overseeing the department's elite honors and summer intern programs had turned away hundreds of qualified applicants between 2002 and 2006 based on "impermissible" factors, including the candidates' political affiliations.

Fine is scheduled to testify about politicized hiring before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, even as lawyers inside and outside the department await the release of more findings.

In congressional testimony last year, former Justice counselor and White House liaison Monica M. Goodling told lawmakers that she may have "gone too far" and "crossed the line" by asking would-be immigration judges and assistant U.S. attorneys their political views in job interviews. Goodling, who testified under a grant of immunity, told the House Judiciary panel that she did not intend to violate civil service laws at the time.

Concern that politically connected government employees will subvert merit-based employment criteria and public-notice requirements to move to civil service jobs is a perennial issue in Washington. But analysts say the pressure intensifies in an election year, when job hunting becomes a priority and the prospect of a steady paycheck and medical benefits grows more attractive.

Congressional watchdogs uncovered 18 suspicious instances at Justice in a 2006 report that examined the practice, also known as "burrowing in." In another study, the Government Accountability Office said four Clinton-era political appointees at Justice headquarters transferred to high-paying jobs as career prosecutors in field offices shortly after President Bush was inaugurated seven years ago. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) recently asked the GAO to initiate a fresh investigation of "burrowing in" during the course of the Bush administration.

"It would be very damaging to Justice Department morale to allow any burrowing in at all," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who has studied the phenomenon. "Wrong signal, wrong time."

Department spokesman Peter Carr said officials will review the letter and respond. Earlier this week, the attorney general acknowledged allegations of past improper hiring and told Congress the department would respond with "any and all steps that are warranted."

"It is absolutely crucial that the American people have complete confidence in the propriety of what we do, and I will work to make certain they can have such confidence," Mukasey told members of the House Judiciary panel.

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