Justice Dept. Issues a Callback

The attorney general spoke of a broken-down hiring system.
The attorney general spoke of a broken-down hiring system. (Mario Tama - Getty Images)
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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Job applicants who were rejected by the Justice Department because of improper political considerations will be urged to apply for open positions, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey told an audience yesterday.

Mukasey said that the hiring system at Justice had broken down and that department leaders had failed to supervise the behavior "of those who did wrong." But the attorney general stopped short of agreeing to weed out lawyers and immigration judges who won their jobs based on faulty criteria.

"Two wrongs do not make a right," Mukasey told the American Bar Association yesterday in New York. "The people hired in an improper way did not, themselves, do anything wrong. It therefore would be unfair -- and quite possibly illegal given their civil service protections -- to fire or reassign them without individual cause."

Mukasey explicitly ruled out criminal prosecution of former Justice Department employees who investigators say ran afoul of civil service laws, echoing congressional testimony last month by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. "Where there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we vigorously prosecute," the attorney general said. "But not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime."

The speech came two weeks after the Justice Department inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility reported that former officials had committed misconduct and flouted civil service laws by using ideological factors to screen candidates for permanent jobs. Applicants for the elite honors program and for slots as prosecutors and immigration judges routinely were asked for information about their political contributions and for their positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, investigators found.

Since then, Democratic lawmakers and the American Immigration Lawyers Association have called on the department's leaders to root out people who were hired under the illegal process.

The attorney general has been criticized for signing paperwork to promote immigration judge Garry D. Malphrus to a seat on the prestigious Board of Immigration Appeals even as investigators completed their blistering report. Malphrus is a former GOP aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also had been associate director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and had taken part in the "Brooks Brothers Riot" -- chanting at Miami's polling headquarters -- to support George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida.

"It would have ill served the public interest not to appoint him merely because those who first hired him had violated the civil service laws," Mukasey said yesterday, adding that all Justice employees undergo routine performance evaluations.

Separately, an official in the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility said the unit has notified bar associations of its findings against five lawyers singled out in reports thus far. The bar groups could initiate their own disciplinary proceedings against the lawyers, who include former Justice Department White House liaison Monica M. Goodling; former attorney general chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson; and former deputy attorney general chief of staff Michael D. Elston. Two lower-ranking officials, Esther Slater McDonald and John Nowacki, also were cited in the previous reports and their bar associations were notified, the official said.

The issue is unlikely to fade, as investigators are preparing more studies on politicized hiring in the civil rights division and the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.

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