Illegal Hiring at the Justice Department

The Justice Department’s inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility released a joint report yesterday investigating allegations of politicized hiring at the DOJ. The report, according to the introduction (a PDF of the whole document is available here), looked into whether “political or ideological affiliations of applicants were improperly considered in the selection of candidates” in two prestigious Justice Department programs: the Attorney General’s Honors Program, for entry-level attorneys, and the Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP), a paid internship. The answer, after extensive research into thousands of applications, email correspondence and other relevant material: yes, indeed. Liberals need not apply.

In 2002, after senior DOJ officials reviewed the honors program, the hiring process was changed dramatically to counteract a perceived over-representation of liberals. Political appointees yanked the recruitment process from the (nonpartisan) career attorneys, who had overseen it for many years, and candidates with liberal organizations on their resumes began to be “deselected” from consideration. In 2002, for example, all members of the liberal American Constitution Society were rejected, while members of the conservative Federalist Society received a 93 percent approval rating. That same year, 43 of 61 applicants affiliated with the Democratic Party were bounced, while 41 of 46 Republican applicants were let in. (You can get a quick overview of the data in this helpful graph from the New York Times.)

The trend continued until 2006, when it accelerated under then-AG Alberto Gonzales. That year, the report notes, “many complaints surfaced after the Screening Committee took weeks, rather than the normal 2 days, to conduct its review, and deselected an unusually large number of seemingly qualified Honors Program and SLIP candidates.” That was also the year that Michael Elston, the Deputy Attorney General’s Chief of Staff–who may also have had a hand in the highly politicized dismissal of US Attorneys–was placed in charge of the Screening Committee. Under Elston’s watch Honors Program candidates whose applications reflected liberal affiliations were deselected at more than three times the rate (55 percent) of those with conservative ties (18 percent) and more than twice the rate of those without any political affiliations (23 percent). The bottom line, according to the audit: “Elston violated federal law and Department policy by deselecting candidates based on their liberal affiliations.” (Elston has since resigned from the Justice Department, along with his colleague and partner in crime Esther Slater McDonald.)

In April 2007, responding to criticisms from within the department–the investigation was prompted by an anonymous letter from DOJ staffers to Congress–the selection process for the honors program and SLIP was revamped, reverting essentially to oversight by career DOJ employees rather than political appointees. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said in a statement yesterday, “The Department overhauled its honors program and summer law intern program hiring processes last year, and I am pleased that the report remarked positively on these institutional changes. I have also made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable.”

That’s promising, I guess. But it’s worth noting that this investigation was only the first in a series of reports on the Bush-era repurposing of the Justice Department as a White House weapon. This report looked at the damage done to upstart and aspiring attorneys at the beginning of their careers; next up, and starring a similar cast of seedy characters, a related investigation into the politicized removal of US Attorneys at the peak of their careers. Most of these guys, remember, were let go because they refused to launch specious investigations into voter fraud that would have damaged Democratic candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, or because they successfully prosecuted Republican Congressmen for corruption. That’s not justice; that’s partisan warfare.

Yesterday’s report, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said, “confirms our findings and our fears that the same senior department officials involved with the firing of United States attorneys were injecting improper political motives into the process of hiring young attorneys. I suspect further reports from the inspector general will continue to shed light on the extent to which the Bush administration has allowed politics to affect–and infect–the department’s priorities.”

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