Washington — Washington -- Justice Department investigators said yesterday that they are investigating whether the agency's Civil Rights Division engaged in improper hiring and personnel decisions, expanding an investigation that arose from the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys.
The internal review will also look into hiring for the agency's prestigious honors program for entry-level attorneys and for summer internships, according to a letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees from Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
Last week, a former top aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Monica M. Goodling, testified before a House committee that she "crossed the line" by considering the party affiliations of people applying for nonpolitical jobs at the department.
Goodling acknowledged that she included political factors, including campaign contributions, in screening for such positions as immigration judge and assistant U.S. attorney.
Injecting party politics into federal hiring decisions is a possible violation of federal civil service laws and can lead to the suspension or firing of those involved. Goodling resigned from the Justice Department this year and testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution.
The expanded investigation also appears to reflect the concerns of a growing number of career employees at the Justice Department who have suggested that politics has compromised hiring at the department during the Bush administration.
In a letter this spring to the judiciary panels, an anonymous group of Justice Department employees wrote that political appointees were using politics to screen candidates for the honors and internship programs.
"Most of those struck from the list had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for a 'liberal' cause or otherwise appeared to have 'liberal' leanings," the employees, who called themselves the Group of Concerned Department of Justice Employees, wrote in the April 7 letter.
Several former senior officials in the department's Civil Rights Division have also said that they think Bush administration appointees applied a political test to purge the ranks of the division in favor of Republican loyalists.
"Investigation of hiring practices throughout the department, especially the Civil Rights Division, is long overdue," said Joseph D. Rich, a former voting rights chief in that division, commenting on the expanded internal investigation.
In their letter, Fine and Jarrett said they were looking at "allegations regarding Monica Goodling's and others' actions" in "hiring and personnel decisions."
The investigation is an outgrowth of their examination of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year by the Bush administration. Democrats have alleged that the dismissals were part of a plan by the administration to appoint top prosecutors who would pursue voter fraud and public corruption cases that would benefit Republicans.
"It is deeply troubling that the crisis of leadership at the department allowed the White House and others to wield political influence over key law enforcement decisions and hiring policies," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.