The Justice Department is investigating whether its former White House liaison used political affiliations in deciding whom to hire as entry-level prosecutors in some U.S. attorney offices around the country, The Associated Press has learned.
Such consideration would be a violation of federal law.
The inquiry involving Monica Goodling, a conservative Republican who recently quit as counsel and White House liaison for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, raises new concerns that politics have cast a shadow over the independence of trial prosecutors who enforce U.S. laws.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd confirmed Wednesday that the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility have been investigating for several weeks Goodling’s role in hiring career attorneys — an unusual responsibility for her to have had.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Goodling "may have taken prohibited considerations into account during such review," Boyd told the AP. "Whether or not the allegation is true is currently the subject of the OIG/OPR investigation."
Three government officials with knowledge of the investigation said Goodling appears to have sought information about party affiliation while vetting applicants for assistant U.S. attorneys’ jobs. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Goodling’s attorney, John Dowd, declined comment.
Separately, senators subpoenaed Gonzales on Wednesday directing him to provide any e-mails related to presidential adviser Karl Rove and the firings of eight federal prosecutors. In Jackson, Miss., Gonzales ended a news conference about the Virginia Tech shootings after he was asked about being subpoenaed.
"I don’t want to comment on it without going back and talking to folks within the department," Gonzales said.
Additionally, new documents surfaced Wednesday showing that at least four of the eight targeted U.S. attorneys reported being told to stay quiet about their dismissals by Mike Elston, the top aide to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
The documents also indicate that one of the fired prosecutors was told by Associate Attorney General William Mercer that the dismissals were to make room for others to gain experience so the Republican Party would have a strong bench of candidates for federal judgeships.
Gonzales — with President Bush’s backing — has resisted calls for his resignation in the controversy over the dismissals, which Democrats say appear to have been politically motivated.
Last month, Goodling quit the Justice Department after refusing to testify to Congress about her role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. The House Judiciary Committee has voted to give Goodling immunity from prosecution for her testimony — an offer that is being reviewed by the Justice Department to make sure it does not interfere with any criminal investigations.
Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said the new investigation "suggests politics infected the most basic operations at the Justice Department."
Goodling and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, also had authority to hire or fire about 135 politically appointed Justice Department employees who did not require Senate confirmation.
Asked if he had ever heard of the agency’s White House liaison getting involved in hiring of career prosecutors, Dennis Boyd, the executive director of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, said: "No, never." Boyd, who is no relation to the Justice Department spokesman, declined further comment.
The investigation of Goodling appears to focus on her role in reviewing applications for trial prosecutors for offices headed by temporary or acting U.S. attorneys who had not been confirmed by the Senate. That responsibility is usually handled by the Justice Department’s executive office of U.S. attorneys.
Goodling had served in the executive U.S. attorney’s office until she was transferred to serve as Gonzales’ counsel and primary White House contact. The internal Justice investigation concerns Goodling’s review of job applicants only after she joined the attorney general’s office, the government officials said.
An official using political affiliation in choosing such applicants clearly would violate traditional Department of Justice policy and practice, said Joe diGenova, who was the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia during the Reagan administration.
"There is no justification for it," diGenova said. "Politics should play no role in the decision-making process of career prosecutors. And if it does, that’s clearly improper, and clearly a violation of all of the traditional policies in the Justice Department."
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary panel released new statements from three of the dismissed U.S. attorneys contending they received calls from McNulty chief of staff Elston, admonishing them to keep quiet. A fourth former U.S. attorney, Bud Cummins in Little Rock, Ark., had made a similar accusation in an e-mail released in March.
"I believe that Elston was offering me a quid pro quo agreement: my silence in exchange for the attorney general’s," wrote Paul Charlton, the former U.S. attorney in Arizona, according to statements released by the House panel.
John McKay, former top prosecutor in Seattle, said he perceived a "threat" from Elston during his call. And Carol Lam, who was U.S. attorney in San Diego, said that "during one phone call, Michael Elston erroneously accused me of ‘leaking’ my dismissal to the press, and criticized me for talking to other dismissed U.S. attorneys."
Elston’s attorney, Bob Driscoll, said, "There certainly was no intention to threaten anybody."
Daniel Bogden, the former U.S. attorney for Nevada, said he was told he was being dismissed because the Bush administration had a short window to get others into prosecutor jobs to bolster their resumes. President Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Bogden said Mercer told him on Dec. 7, 2006, that the firings were being carried out "so the Republican Party would have more future candidates for the federal bench and future political positions."