Six attorneys rejected from civil service positions at the Justice Department filed a lawsuit today against former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and three other top officials for allegedly violating their rights by taking politics into consideration in the hiring process.
The suit is an attempt to hold top officials accountable for the hiring scandal that ultimately led to Gonzales' resignation last year, said Daniel Metcalfe, attorney for the plaintiffs who is also executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University's Washington College of Law.
"My clients wish that they hadn't had to bring this lawsuit -- they would have greatly preferred to be working inside the Justice Department, where by all rights they deserved to be, defending the government in court rather than standing as victimized examples of government wrongdoing," said Metcalfe, a former longtime Justice Department official.
One of the rejected attorneys -- Sean Gerlich -- first filed suit against the department in June. Today's amended complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, broadens the suit to include Gonzales; Monica Goodling, former White House Liaison; Michael Elston, former chief of staff to then-Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty; and Esther McDonald, a former member of the Honors Program Screening Committee.
In it, the attorneys allege that top officials violated the applicants' privacy and due process through the politicized hiring process in the Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Program.
The suit alleges that in vetting candidates' political affiliations -- in part by Googling their names in connection with any political activity -- the officials violated privacy rules requiring that applicants' files maintain no additional information about the individuals' political activity. The department's failure to fully address this "reveal defendant Department of Justice's utterly unredeemable obliviousness to its legal obligations, and its remarkably recidivistic failures to meet them, in the first place," the complaint states.
The suit also argues that a wholesale shift in taking political ideology into account in hiring for the civil service positions violated the applicants' constitutional rights. "This was an extraordinary, and uniquely successful, conspiracy to achieve political results that required the gross deprivation of hundreds of individuals' constitutional rights...for which defendant Gonzales was legally most responsible," the complaint states.
Goodling's attorneys, led by John Dowd, issued a statement calling the suit a public relations ploy without merit and nothing to do with the issues Goodling was involved with. "We have no idea why the six plaintiffs in this case were not selected for the Department's extraordinarily competitive Honors Program and Summer Law Intern Programs, except that it had nothing to do with Monica Goodling — a fact that the evidence will bear out in court," they wrote.
Elston's attorney, Bob Driscoll and the Justice Department declined comment. Calls to McDonald and Gonzales' attorney were not immediately returned.
The Justice Department first came under fire last year when questions were raised about whether nine U.S. Attorneys were fired for political reasons. Further investigations revealed broader problems at the department, including how top political officials had screened out applicants for career positions who had more liberal affiliations and politics.
So far, the department's inspector general has issued two reports on the politicization at the department. They found that Goodling, Elston and McDonald violated the law in vetting candidates for career positions based on their political allegiences and affiliations.
Lawsuits seeking to hold top officials civilly liable for acts done during their tenure in government often face difficultly in court, such as the recent case seeking to hold top military officials including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accountable for the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But if successful, the lawsuit may be the only legal consequences these officials face. Earlier this week Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the feds will not prosecute individuals involved in the Justice Department scandal.