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A Times Editorial

Justice Department steeped in politics

This just in from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility: Top aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales broke federal civil law by politicizing the hiring at the nation's top law enforcement agency.

The department charged with prosecuting wrongdoing and routing discrimination in public life was itself a cesspool of cronyism, ethical rot and official misconduct. Job candidates were rewarded or punished according to their perceived political loyalties and even choices they made in their personal lives. And, of course, the legal eagles at Justice and the White House who could and should have stopped it claimed they had no idea it was going on.

A White House spokesman noted with some satisfaction that "there really is not a lot new here," and, sadly, that is true. Under this administration, the American people have grown accustomed to seeing politics trump every other consideration — whether science or facts or now the integrity of the nation's chief law enforcement agency. If anything, the report by the department's inspector general showed how routinely personnel decisions were made on the basis of politics and connections.

One longtime prosecutor was passed over for a counterterrorism job because his wife was active in Democratic politics. The job went instead to a junior attorney with no experience in counterterrorism. Another prosecutor was rejected for a job over concerns she was gay. One conservative candidate, by contrast, was praised for his views on "god, guns (plus) gays."

This, the inspector general's report said, "violated federal law and department policy, and also constituted misconduct.''

The investigation focused on two former senior aides to Gonzales, Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson. A young lawyer at the Republican National Committee, Goodling joined the department in 2002, rising quickly to become counsel to the attorney general and the office's liaison to the White House. Goodling testified to Congress last year, amid the furor over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, that she took political considerations into account when hiring. But the internal report takes this story further, finding that Goodling took politics into account for both career and political appointments. She asked about a job candidate's political philosophy and their regard for President Bush and the Republican Party. She used the Internet to background a candidate's "political and ideological affiliations," the report said.

The inspector general also faulted Sampson, who served as Gonzales' chief of staff, and other officials for either misconduct or for not alerting senior Justice Department officials. Sampson ignored the traditional process for selecting immigration judges. Instead of posting vacancies and taking applications nationwide, he instead consulted the White House and congressional Republicans for candidates to fill these career jobs. Not surprisingly, most of these positions went to conservative Republicans, including party donors .

While the White House may see the report as old news, Attorney General Michael Mukasey needs to shed more light on what senior Justice officials knew and did about this wrongdoing. It's not enough for the attorney general to say he will make sure nothing like this happens again. Mukasey has subpoena power, and he should use it to get at the truth within his own department.

The Bush administration may be on its way out, but the Justice Department's credibility is at stake. Americans need to know that the nation's chief law enforcement agency is above partisan politics.

Justice Department steeped in politics 07/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 8:04am]
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