Audit: DOJ Played Politics, Broke Law in Hiring

Senior Justice Department officials violated federal law and internal guidelines by improperly using political considerations to make hiring decisions for two competitive employment programs, an internal investigation has found.

The review, conducted by the department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility -- both internal department watchdogs -- has concluded that many graduates at the top of their classes from the nation's best law schools were deselected from the highly competitive Justice Department Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program because of their political leanings or because of their affiliation with perceived liberal groups.

In one instance, a candidate who graduated at the top of his or her class at Harvard Law was denied a Justice Department job because of past work for the Council on American Islamic Relations.

The report also notes that Michael Elston, former deputy chief of staff to the deputy attorney general, told a member of the search committee to weed out "Wackos" and "Wack Jobs."

Allegations about improper hiring practices in the programs surfaced in an anonymous April 2007 letter sent to Congress signed by "A Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees." The claim prompted the internal review.

The issue surfaced after the U.S. attorneys scandal, in which Democratic lawmakers charged that the department fired at lease nine of the prosecutors for political reasons, began to unravel, and scrutiny focused in on then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' management of the department.

"This joint report exposes the wrongdoing that occurred, and provides recommendations on how to prevent the improper infusion of partisan politics into the workings of the Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program in the future," Marshal Jarrett, the chief counsel of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, wrote.

The DOJ review examined the hiring criteria used for the programs in 2002 and 2006 when a high number of applicants were deselected. As part of the 2002 review, the inspector general found that, while a higher proportion of candidates with Democratic affiliation were deselected based on information on their applications, the inspector general "found no other evidence that the members of the screening committee intentionally considered political or ideological affiliations in making their deselections, and the committee members all denied doing so."

The investigation did not find major issues or concerns about the deselection process from 2003-2005, but focuses on the actions of the selection committee in 2006 when Gonzales was the attorney general. The 2006 screening committee was chaired by Elston and Esther Slater McDonald, a political appointee who served as counsel to the associate attorney general. McDonald was a graduate of Pensacola Christian College and attended Notre Dame Law School.

The report also mentions Daniel Fridman, a career Justice official and assistant U.S. attorney from the Southern District of Florida, on detail to the deputy attorney general's office.

The report notes that Fridman expressed reservations about the selection process. "Fridman told us that, after his conversation with Elston, he was concerned and uncertain about what he was supposed to do. He did not understand what Elston meant by 'wackos' or 'wack jobs,' or how he was supposed to identify a candidate who fell within Elston's definition of those terms.

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