TOPICS > Politics

Report: DOJ Aides Allowed Politics to Guide Hiring Decisions

July 28, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
Loading the player...
A Justice Department report released Monday concludes that former top agency officials broke the law by weighing applicants' political leanings when making hiring decisions. Experts examine the findings.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: The Justice Department report makes clear aides to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales broke the law by using political criteria in hiring decisions. The 140-page independent report stems from the investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006.

Today’s report focuses on the hiring of career prosecutors and immigration judges and points to the actions of two aides in particular: Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Gonzales; and Monica Goodling, she was a chief liaison between the Justice Department and the White House.

Goodling was questioned about her role in hiring career attorneys at a House Judiciary Committee meeting last year.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT (D), Virginia: Were there any laws that you could have broken by taking political considerations into account, quote, “on some occasions”?

MONICA GOODLING, Former Justice Department Official: The best I can say is that I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: Was that legal?

MONICA GOODLING: Sir, I’m not able to answer that question. I know I crossed the line.

REP. BOBBY SCOTT: What line, legal?

MONICA GOODLING: I crossed the line of the civil service rules.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s report expands on Goodling’s admission, saying she improperly subjected candidates for certain career positions to the same politically based evaluation she used on candidates for political positions, in violation of federal law and department policy.

The report also found Goodling and Sampson screened candidates by researching their political contributions and voter registration records.

While the report dealt specifically with hiring, Goodling and Sampson were also involved in firing the eight U.S. attorneys. All were political appointees allegedly let go for political reasons.

Among the eight were California’s Carol Lam, who prosecuted Republican Randy Cunningham for bribery in 2005, and New Mexico’s David Iglesias, who was pressured to speed up investigations into Democratic corruption.

ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General: I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.

RAY SUAREZ: That controversy contributed to the calls for the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales, who stepped down a year ago.

His replacement, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, said he was “disturbed” by today’s findings. He released a statement, saying, “It’s neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees. And I have acted and will continue to act to ensure that my words are translated into reality so that the conduct described in this report does not occur again at the department.”

Today’s report urges the Justice Department to clarify rules about the criteria that may be used to assess career attorney candidates.

Severity of report

David Iglesias
Former U.S. Attorney
[I]t corroborated what my fellow fired colleagues and I've been saying all along, and that is there has been improper politicization at the highest levels of the Justice Department.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on today's report, we turn now to two former Justice Department officials. David Rivkin served under President Reagan and the first President Bush. He's now a lawyer in private practice in Washington, D.C.

And David Iglesias is author of the book "In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration." He was one of eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration in 2006.

And, David Iglesias, this is the second of four reports expected from the inspector general. What did you make of its findings?

DAVID IGLESIAS, Former Justice Department Attorney: Well, I wasn't surprised at all. In fact, it corroborated what my fellow fired colleagues and I've been saying all along, and that is there has been improper politicization at the highest levels of the Justice Department.

Now, what broke this story initially was our forced terminations, but I don't think any of us really would have guessed at that time that the tentacles of this politicization would reach in all the places that it did. So, unfortunately, I was not surprised after I read through it.

RAY SUAREZ: David Rivkin, what do you make of the findings?

DAVID RIVKIN, Former Justice Department Official: A somewhat different take. This report does not at all substantiate pervasive or wholesale politicization of the Justice Department, not to minimize the significance of this report.

But this report says nothing about the eight U.S. attorneys being fired or replaced, who of course were political appointees, and that's perfectly appropriate to apply a political criteria.

This report very regrettably points two or three people acting wrongfully, dealing -- injecting political criteria in consideration of career employees, violates department regulations, violates federal law, and, quite frankly, is rather sad.

It really, in many respects, attests to some almost an inexperience of the people involved. Remember, Monica Goodling, in particular, didn't even try to hide her tracks. I'm not suggesting that hiding her tracks would have been commendable.

But here's somebody acting openly, almost naively in a way that makes no sense. And, of course, it did not come to any good end. But no support whatsoever of this widespread politicization image that a lot of critics have drawn.

Level of employees

David Rivkin
Lawyer
The system worked. There is no need to jump to any conclusions about the broad implications. And, also, look at all the sensationalism in the hearings, all the confrontations there has been to other political branches.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, the other David, Iglesias, you just heard David Rivkin describe something that was limited in scope and confined, as far as the I.G. would report, to two fairly low-level employees.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Not low-level. Remember, Kyle Sampson was the chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling was the White House liaison and counsel to Mr. Gonzales.

Also, you have to remember there are going to be four parts to this. Part one was the Honors Program, which did show, once again, improper politicization of career people.

Now, what the viewer has to understand is it's OK to ask political appointees who come and go political questions. It is absolutely not OK to ask that of career people, which happened in part one, which was the Honors Program. This is part two.

And today's report did mention that the civil rights section investigation in the U.S. attorney section is still ongoing, so this play is far from over. And I'm afraid it does corroborate our worst fears.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Rivkin, you described something that was fairly limited, in your view, but the inspector general's report says that Monica Goodling passed over hundreds of applicants and squashed the promotion of others, and here's a quote, "after deeming candidates insufficiently loyal to the Republican Party."

DAVID RIVKIN: Right, I don't mean to minimize the significance of it. In fact, I began my career at the Justice Department as a career employee. And I fully understand that. It, frankly, stuns me that she didn't and, again, acted in this way.

Having said that, the system worked. One of the things I wanted to emphasize is here is the two very important offices, Inspector General and OPR, that investigated this without any outside interference, got to the bottom of it, got the recommendations in place, one of the most important recommendations that's been fully implemented.

Frankly, people like Monica Goodling, the White House liaison, should have nothing to do with the selection of career employees she's not the area that political officials, substantive political officials -- you know, if you're head of a civil division and you're a political appointee, but you should not look and participate in the selection of career attorneys.

But what is the White House liaison doing there? That was just the wrong institutional decision.

The system worked. There is no need to jump to any conclusions about the broad implications. And, also, look at all the sensationalism in the hearings, all the confrontations there has been to other political branches.

I trust the OIG and OPR to get to the bottom of things, other things. With all due respect to David, let's see how it plays out.

Did they act alone?

David Iglesias
Former U.S. Attorney
You know, bottom line, after lots of hours spent talking to top Justice Department officials, it wasn't clear who put this list together.

RAY SUAREZ: But David Iglesias is hinting at something wider and more significant here. You asked why Monica Goodling was involved in this job at all. Doesn't that give you an idea of how the White House and the political appointees at the Justice Department saw this work of bringing in new career employees?

DAVID RIVKIN: I understand, but let me tell you, from my admittedly limited experience in government over a period of some eight years, there are a lot of things that happen that turn out to be foolish, but not purposeful, in that just because you had an individual White House liaison being involved in those matters does not at all require you to conclude that there was some massive effort at the White House to reshape the career slots at the Justice.

And if you also think about it, yes, she turned down maybe 200 or 300 applicants, but the total percentage of a wonderful Justice Department workforce that can be changed during the tenure of somebody like Monica Goodling is tiny.

My point is, it was a foolish thing. And it was really kind of a hopeless effort, like King Canute-like, trying to stop the sea from coming in. I just -- I mean, I feel sad. I do not feel that there's any gigantic conspiracy lurking out here.

RAY SUAREZ: David Iglesias, do you feel that Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson acted alone?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Well, you know, that's a very difficult to question to answer, because if you recall from the testimony last spring, when they repeatedly asked former Attorney General Gonzales who put this list together, nobody really owned up to it.

For a while, it looked like maybe Kyle Sampson put the list together, and then he said he was the aggregator. You know, bottom line, after lots of hours spent talking to top Justice Department officials, it wasn't clear who put this list together.

And you have to keep in mind the firings of the U.S. attorneys were unprecedented. No president had ever done it to his own people.

And Monica Goodling, I mean, I know for a fact she was interviewing for interim U.S. attorney positions. The reason I know that is I know a couple people who she interviewed.

I mean, I would agree with Mr. Rivkin in this: This is a really sad day for the Justice Department, because this is the one department that needs to be untouchable for illicit partisan politics. And, unfortunately, over the past few years, not only did politics touch it, but it touched it in a meaningful way, in a very depressing way, and in an illegal way.

So I would say Monica Goodling was more than just foolish; she broke the law. And I want to be clear: not criminal laws, but civil laws. And there needs to be some consequence to that.

Attorney firings

David Rivkin
Lawyer
Dozens of assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, deputy secretaries come and go in the course of any administration's tenure. There's nothing sinister about it; it's politics.

RAY SUAREZ: Wasn't she given immunity at the time of her testimony?

DAVID IGLESIAS: She asked for it. In fact, my understanding is she was the only Justice Department official in history to ever claim the Fifth Amendment prior to testifying in front of Congress. That's a pretty sad fact, if it's true.

RAY SUAREZ: And, David Rivkin, you wanted to say?

DAVID RIVKIN: Very briefly, I share the sadness, but let's see what the similar credible report, type report would say about the U.S. attorneys.

I wanted to challenge one thing, that numerous instances where very hard-working, able, loyal political appointees asked to step down and for no reason, I can think about dozens of stories in my own experience for no other reason than their boss changed or even if it's the same boss, there's a feeling, look, you've served there long enough. You've done a good job. There's somebody else who's equally qualified, equally deserving who comes in and can do your job.

So the notion that it was somehow unprecedented to oust four -- eight presidential appointees is just not true. Dozens of assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, deputy secretaries come and go in the course of any administration's tenure. There's nothing sinister about it; it's politics.

You get your job in the first place, assuming everybody's qualified, because of political considerations, and you lose the job because of political considerations.

RAY SUAREZ: Very, very quickly, before we go, David Iglesias, should Karl Rove be asked again to testify in this matter?

DAVID IGLESIAS: Yes. And he needs to show his commitment to the rule of law by at least showing up in front of Congress. And if he has a privilege, he needs to claim it, but he cannot legitimately thumb his nose by not even showing up to testify. That's something that Congress needs to take very, very seriously.

RAY SUAREZ: And David Rivkin?

DAVID RIVKIN: Absolutely not. To me, the very fact -- and I mentioned it earlier -- that this very credible report is produced in a constructive way is a big strike against any kind of congressional spectacles and extravaganzas.

RAY SUAREZ: David Rivkin, David Iglesias, gentlemen, thank you both.

DAVID RIVKIN: Good to be with you.

DAVID IGLESIAS: Thank you.