By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
For nearly two years, a young political aide sought to cultivate a "farm system" for Republicans at the Justice Department, hiring scores of prosecutors and immigration judges who espoused conservative priorities and Christian lifestyle choices.
That aide, Monica M. Goodling, exercised what amounted to veto power over a wide range of critical jobs, asking candidates for their views on abortion and same-sex marriage and maneuvering around senior officials who outranked her, including the department's second-in-command.
An extensive report by the department's Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility concluded yesterday that Goodling and others had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in "misconduct," a finding that could expose them to further scrutiny and sanctions. The report depicted Goodling as a central figure in politicizing employment decisions at Justice during the Bush administration.
Goodling declined to cooperate with investigators, who instead interviewed 85 witnesses and scoured documents and computer hard drives to prepare their report. Last year, she trembled as she told the House Judiciary Committee that she "crossed the line" by asking improper questions of job seekers to gauge their political leanings.
But the report and accounts from lawyers who worked alongside Goodling, 34, at Justice provide a far more extensive examination of her dominance during her time as the department's White House liaison and counselor to the attorney general. One source said staff members called her "she who must be obeyed."
Thirty-four candidates told investigators that Goodling or one of her deputies raised the topic of abortion in job interviews and 21 said they discussed same-sex marriage, the report said. Another job applicant said he admired Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, only to watch Goodling "frown" and respond, "But she's pro-choice."
She and her aides regularly gave candidates for career civil service jobs a form designed for political appointees that sought information on party affiliation and financial contributions. When job seekers sometimes raised objections, Goodling replied that the form was a mistake, showing that she was "aware that it was improper," the report said.
John M. Dowd, an attorney for Goodling, said yesterday that she deserved praise, not scorn, for her "exceptional candor" with Congress last year. "Each and every one of the core conclusions of the OIG/OPR report . . . is consistent with and indeed derived from Ms. Goodling's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee," he said.
The 140-page report appeared to confirm the suspicions of congressional Democrats and raised fresh questions about the reputation of the Justice Department, which has been roiled since the resignations of more than a dozen top officials last year, including Goodling, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Gonzales chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson. The report also found that Sampson had engaged in misconduct by systematically involving politics in the hiring of immigration judges.
Investigators cited discrepancies in information provided by Goodling, Sampson and former press aide John Nowacki, who, like Goodling, received his law degree from Regent University, founded by television evangelist Pat Robertson. But they stopped short of concluding that the conduct rose to the level of a criminal violation.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said yesterday he had directed his staff to consider whether there are grounds to refer allegedly inconsistent statements for possible criminal prosecution. Attorneys for the former Justice Department officials scoffed at the idea, and independent lawyers following the case said it is likely that officials who had left the department will face only ethics inquiries in connection with breaking civil service laws.
Current and former department lawyers said they were appalled by the deep reach of the political hiring, which affected hundreds of rejected job seekers and as many as 40 immigration judges who were recruited under the political criteria. Those judges may remain on the bench because their career civil service jobs carry significant employment protections.
In several instances, candidates for immigration posts were solicited directly from the White House political affairs and personnel offices, as well as Republican congressmen, without ever being formally posted to the public, according to the report.
Then-White House adviser Karl Rove once recommended a childhood friend for a judgeship in Chicago, to which the lawyer was named in October 2005 after a months-long delay. "The finger was on the scale," a career lawyer in the immigration office wrote in an e-mail at the time, which was later cited by investigators.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called on current Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to review hiring and remove workers who were recruited based on the illegal criteria. "The taxpayers are entitled to have the best, most qualified candidates dealing with the most important federal responsibilities, including enforcing our immigration laws, protecting national security, and enforcing criminal and civil rights statutes," Nadler said.
In a statement, Mukasey said that he was "disturbed" by the findings and that he is reviewing the report to determine whether further action should be taken.
A report last month by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and Office of Professional Responsibility chief H. Marshall Jarrett found that politics had permeated hiring for the elite honors and summer law intern programs. That revelation already has prompted unsuccessful candidates to bring lawsuits seeking monetary damages and access to internal department correspondence. Lawyers who scrutinized yesterday's report predicted fresh claims would flow from people who maintain that their employment prospects have been hindered.
Leslie Hagen, an assistant U.S. attorney who according to yesterday's report was denied at least two positions at the Justice Department because Goodling suspected she was a lesbian, is petitioning current leaders for a "mutually agreeable permanent position," according to Lisa J. Banks, Hagen's employment attorney.
In another instance that investigators called "particularly damaging," Goodling refused to hire an award-winning career prosecutor with nearly two decades of experience for a temporary counterterrorism job in Washington because his wife served as vice chairman of the local Democratic Party and ran local congressional campaigns.
The prosecutor is not named in the report, but sources identified him as William J. Hochul Jr., an assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo. He won guilty pleas from a New York collective known as the Lackawanna Six, which was accused of providing support to terrorists. Hochul, who started his career as a prosecutor in the District, did not return calls seeking comment.
Instead, a registered Republican with three years of experience as a federal prosecutor and no background in counterterrorism was selected for the position, according to the report.
Gonzales told investigators he was unaware of the illegal hiring practices his aides were using. "It's simply not possible for any Cabinet officer to be completely aware of and micromanage the activities of staffers, particularly where they don't inform him of what's going on," said George J. Terwilliger III, Gonzales's attorney.
Gonzales's statements to Congress last year about the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and other subjects remain under investigation by the inspector general.
Investigators said the most widespread politicization occurred in the hiring of immigration judges, where vacancies and case backlogs mounted while officials sought to find politically appealing candidates. Hiring policies there changed after Texas lawyer Guadalupe Gonzalez filed a discrimination lawsuit: That suit was settled last year, and now such jobs are awarded on merit. "It was very apparent the department was going off in a different direction and it was also very clandestine," Gonzalez said in an interview yesterday.
Bradford A. Berenson, an attorney for Sampson, who oversaw the hiring of immigration judges, said the trouble stemmed from a misunderstanding. "With respect to immigration judges, he believed in complete good faith that they were not career civil service positions and that political criteria could be taken into account," Berenson said.
Investigators said they could not find evidence to support an account by Sampson, now in private law practice in the District, that Justice lawyers agreed with his interpretation.