WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department has begun an internal investigation into whether a former senior adviser to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales improperly tried to fill vacancies for career attorneys at the agency with Republicans loyal to the Bush administration, department officials said yesterday.
The inquiry focuses on whether Monica Goodling, formerly a top aide to Gonzales, sought to determine the political affiliations of job applicants before they were hired as prosecutors - potentially a violation of civil service laws and a break with a tradition of nonpartisanship in the career ranks at the Justice Department.
The inquiry by the Justice Department's inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility was announced on a day the House and Senate Judiciary Committees advanced their broader investigations of issues related to last year's dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys.
The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to Gonzales for all Justice Department e-mail messages about the firings involving Karl Rove, the senior White House political adviser.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and chairman of the Senate panel, said in a letter to Gonzales that "significant documents highly relevant to the committee's inquiry have not been produced."
In response, Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said, "I know they like to get headlines more than they like to get the facts, but if there's still any interest in the facts up there, the easiest way is to simply accept our offer to have Karl and others in for interviews."
A separate investigation announced yesterday by the Justice Department looks at a possibly more troubling role that Goodling might have played in department hiring: selecting career prosecutors.
Normally, these lawyers are hired directly by U.S. attorneys. But when an interim U.S. attorney is in place, one who has not been confirmed by the Senate, he or she must seek the approval of officials at Justice Department headquarters, a provision that perhaps allowed Goodling to investigate the political backgrounds of the applicants.
A Justice Department statement issued yesterday said the investigation started several weeks ago, based on a request by the attorney general's own interim chief of staff, Chuck Rosenberg.
The actions by Goodling are likely to come up today at a House hearing where former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey is scheduled to testify. His departure is seen as a marker of a transition at the Justice Department in mid-2005, a few months after Gonzales became attorney general, as less experienced and more politically oriented officials gained power.