New Signs Point to the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, May 3, 2007; 1:08 PM

Yesterday brought considerably more evidence of direct White House involvement in the overt politicization of the Justice Department -- not only in terms of purging U.S. attorneys who may have been considered insufficiently partisan in their pursuit of criminal cases, but also in terms of filling career positions with attorneys who passed a political litmus test.

Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "The Justice Department has launched an internal investigation into whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's former White House liaison illegally took party affiliation into account in hiring career federal prosecutors, officials said yesterday.

"The allegations against Monica M. Goodling represent a potential violation of federal law and signal that a joint probe begun in March by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility has expanded beyond the controversial dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year."

Evan Perez and Jess Bravin write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Unlike U.S. attorneys, who are presidential political appointees, assistant U.S. attorneys are career employees not meant to be subject to political litmus tests in order to get or keep their jobs. Justice Department policy and federal law prohibit the department from considering political affiliation, among other factors, in deciding whether to hire or fire them."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times that the investigation "widens the probe into allegations of partisan hiring and firing at the agency and complicates the Bush administration's efforts to weather the scandal.

"Goodling has become a focus of congressional investigators because she played a central role in identifying eight U.S. attorneys who were fired last year. The latest disclosure that she also was involved in the hiring of assistant U.S. attorneys shed new light on her clout at the Justice Department and raised more questions about how the agency has operated under Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales."

But why was anyone at main Justice -- not to mention a young political operative with no prosecutorial experience -- involved in hiring career prosecutors in local U.S. attorney's offices? Therein lies a tale.

Eric Lipton and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "Normally, these lawyers are hired by United States attorneys. But when an interim United States attorney is in place, one who has not been confirmed by the Senate, he or she must seek the approval of officials at department headquarters, a rule that perhaps allowed Ms. Goodling to investigate the political backgrounds of the applicants."

But a statement from Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd (Web-published as a Word Document by the Chicago Tribune) doesn't in any way indicate there is any precedent for anyone in main Justice vetting individual hires: "By way of background, acting or interim U.S. Attorneys are limited in their authority to hire Assistant U.S. Attorneys and make other discretionary staff personnel changes," Boyd explained. "This policy exists because hiring decisions are usually made by the Senate confirmed and presidentially appointed U.S. Attorney. However, it is a longstanding DOJ practice to allow the interim or acting U.S. Attorneys to request that the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA) grant a waiver of this limitation due to turnover and workload demands during the nomination and confirmation process. EOUSA reviews the request for waivers to ensure that funding is sufficient to support the hires and also to ensure that upon confirmation, at a minimum, the incoming U.S. Attorney will have the ability to hire a First Assistant U.S. Attorney and a Secretary."

Why Goodling? Well, it makes complete sense in light of this Murray Waas story from the National Journal on Monday: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed a highly confidential order in March 2006 delegating to two of his top aides -- who have since resigned because of their central roles in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys -- extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department. . . .

"In the order, Gonzales delegated to his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and his White House liaison 'the authority, with the approval of the Attorney General, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration' of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department, including all of the department's political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. . . .

"The existence of the order suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department, not just at the U.S.-attorney level. Department records show that the personnel authority was delegated to the two aides at about the same time they were working with the White House in planning the firings of a dozen U.S. attorneys, eight of whom were, in fact, later dismissed."

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