WASHINGTON — Two former Justice Department officials violated federal laws and department policies in 2002 and 2006 by weighing the ideological leanings of law students and young lawyers who were applying for coveted internships and jobs, according to a Justice Department watchdog's report made public Tuesday.
The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine found that officials disproportionately weeded out those with liberal credentials over those with conservative affiliations who were applying for the department's honors program and summer internships.
The report singled out Michael Elston, the former chief of staff to former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and Esther McDonald, a former department lawyer, as violating anti-discrimination and hiring laws by cutting applicants who were left-leaning, including several who'd gotten good grades from top law schools.
The inspector general also faulted other former high-level officials for not responding adequately to concerns that the selection process had been politicized.
While Fine said he wasn't able to prove that officials intentionally singled out applicants, he said his investigators had found enough of a pattern to indicate that political or ideological affiliations were being weighed in 2002 and 2006. As a result of actions by Elston and McDonald in 2006, "many qualified candidates" were weeded out, he concluded.
Fine concluded that the pair had committed misconduct, but he didn't find any violation of criminal law. Attorneys for Elston and McDonald didn't immediately return calls requesting comment. Both resigned last year.
In a statement Tuesday, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he'd be following Fine's recommendations for improving the selection process, and that the department had begun to make changes last year.
"I have also made clear, and will continue to make clear, that the consideration of political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees is impermissible and unacceptable," he said.
The report is the first to come out of a series of inspector general investigations that arose after the department's controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
Fine's investigators are looking into whether those firings were prompted by partisan political reasons, whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his aides misled Congress, and whether civil-rights and voting-rights cases were politicized.
Investigators also have yet to say whether former Gonzales aide Monica Goodling violated the law. Goodling testified to Congress that she "crossed the lines" by applying political litmus tests to career candidates. Among other things, she considered whether job seekers had campaigned for or donated to President Bush or were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
Democrats said that Tuesday's report confirmed their suspicions that the Bush administration improperly politicized the department.
"Yet again, the department has been putting politics where it doesn't belong," House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement. "It appears the politicization at Justice was so pervasive that even interns had to pass a partisan litmus test."
Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft created a hiring system in 2002 that required political appointees to approve applicants' interviews. Previously, career employees within each department had decided which applicants to interview and select.
Fine said he found no evidence that officials had considered political affiliation from 2003 through 2005.
That appeared to change in 2006 under Gonzales, according to Fine's report. Employees "were shocked and upset" after a large number of applicants were weeded out.
McDonald, who answered to Elston, appeared to be screening out left-leaning candidates by searching Google or personal MySpace Web accounts. She noted facts such as an applicant opposing the administration's stance on policies such as Guantanamo detentions.
At one point, another member of the screening committee said that Elston had ordered him to screen for "wackos or wack jobs." Elston later said that he meant extremists from either side of the political spectrum, and he denied applying any political litmus test.
Other officials privately discussed the political leanings of applicants. William Mercer, then-U.S. attorney in Montana, who later became acting associate attorney general, wrote a Justice Department official that a candidate "is probably quite liberal" and recommended considering other applicants. Mercer told investigators he thought that the applicant was being considered for a political appointment, not the honors program.
At times, officials raised questions about the process. Peter Keisler, who was then the assistant attorney general for the civil division, asked Elston why one candidate had been eliminated despite being a top student at Harvard. Keisler said employees thought that the applicant might have been cut because of work as a paralegal for Planned Parenthood.
Others defended the selection process, saying that the change in it was designed to balance a perception that more liberals had been hired under the Clinton administration.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Greg Gordon contributed to this report.)
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