It seems clear now that the Justice Department under the Bush administration was a place where there was very little justice when it came to applicants for career positions whose social beliefs didn’t match up well with conservative dogma, at least as perceived by a major hirer who obviously didn’t belong where she was.
Monica Goodling, according to a just released report that put the department’s official stamp on a list of allegations, was a key figure in a series of actions that violated civil service law and department policy and amounted to misconduct that could cause her future problems. The report merely confirms what has been alleged for several years, including Goodling’s own trembling admissions before the House Judiciary Committee last year.
What in the world was the White House thinking when it gave what amounted to veto power over critical department jobs to an inexperienced young lady from an evangelistic background? Her twisted notions about HER responsibilities to President Bush and Republican policy created an unholy mess. The report from the department’s Office of Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility cited testimony from 85 witnesses, many of whom said they had been asked inappropriately about their sex lives, their religious beliefs, their stance on abortion and other personal, off-limit questions during job interviews.
Most surprising was the fact that this clearly unqualified person had a reputation within the department of getting what she wanted, even over the opposition of her superiors. As counselor to the attorney general and liaison to the White House she was able to maneuver around most objections. One news account quoted sources as saying that staff members called her "one who must be obeyed." Also named in the report was former Justice Department chief of staff Kyle Sampson and former press aide John Nowacki. Both Goodling and Nowacki received their law degrees from Regent University, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
One should not think for a moment, however, that politics has not heretofore played a part in the Justice Department where whatever party controls the White House pretty much calls the tune. That is particularly true in the coveted U.S. attorney positions that are appointed by the president. As a rule of thumb Democratic presidents seldom appoint Republicans to these jobs and vice versa. Those named to these key posts are expected, of course, to make no party distinction when investigating allegations of wrongdoing. A case in point is the recent indictment of the powerful Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska on corruptions charges.
The forced resignation of 12 U.S. attorneys last year was so heavy handed and obviously White House engineered that it brought screams of protest from congressional Democrats and even Republicans and ultimately was the leading cause of Alberto Gonzales’ resignation as attorney general. Even more important, the furor over the U.S. attorneys also has resulted in continuing allegations about the politicization of the entire department under Bush.
The department’s career positions are supposed to be immune to party pressures. Certainly questions about personal beliefs and legal behavior have no place in the job interview process. Goodling has admitted as much and when job seekers aggressively challenged certain forms that asked for political information she quickly responded by withdrawing them as a mistake.
Whether it is a fact or not, most Americans believe the Justice Department should stand for exactly that — justice for all in every aspect. For most of its history that has been the case, although it would be naove to believe political considerations always have been completely absent. In this instance there is strong evidence that misguided young attorneys set out, with or without White House sanction, to impose their own social and political philosophy on the make up of the permanent staff. Ironically, they themselves would not have passed a vetting process, especially as it pertained to qualifications.
Goodling and those who were with her may be in for more personal, if not legal, anguish. There is no sign that the Democratic chairmen of the two congressional judiciary committees, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, intend to back off their inquiries. The inspector general’s report certainly adds fuel to their charges that the department’s hiring and firing decisions were being made by former chief political adviser to Bush, Karl Rove. Well, no kidding.
The current attorney general already has improved the department’s reputation for fairness. But the lingering damage to the image may take longer to repair.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)