WASHINGTON - Justice Department prosecutors are using a grand jury to investigate criminal accusations that grew out of the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys, signaling a new stage in one aspect of the inquiry, lawyers in the case said yesterday.
A lawyer connected to the case said a federal grand jury had recently begun to examine statements by Justice Department officials about hiring decisions in the civil rights division, where some employees said they were subject to a political litmus test.
"The issue was lying, whether the people caught up in this told the truth or not," said the lawyer, who insisted on anonymity because grand jury proceedings are secret.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Justice Department lawyers had brought what is known as a grand jury referral focusing on possible perjury by Bradley J. Schlozman, who was acting head of the civil rights division in 2003.
He later became the interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., where the previous prosecutor said he had been forced out over political disagreements with Washington.
Schlozman admitted to Congress last year that he had bragged about his success in bringing conservative Republican lawyers into the civil rights division.
Justice Department officials declined to comment yesterday.
Schlozman also declined to comment, and his lawyer said he had not been informed that he was the target of any criminal investigation.
"We haven't been contacted by the Department of Justice regarding this, and other than that we have no comment," the lawyer, William Jordan, said.
Schlozman originally told a Senate committee last June that while he was acting U.S. attorney in Kansas City, a Justice Department supervisor "directed" him to bring an indictment in a voter fraud case against a liberal group.
Days later, in a letter trying to "clarify" his remarks, he said that the decision to bring the indictment was his and that he took "full responsibility" for it.
The grand jury inquiry is believed to focus on Schlozman's Senate testimony.
While prosecutors' use of a grand jury to gather sworn testimony and records does not necessarily portend any criminal charges, this is the first time any aspect of the inquiry has advanced to the point of a criminal investigation.
Since last year, two branches of the department, the Inspector General's Office and the Office of Professional Responsibility, have been investigating the firings and related charges of politicization in hiring.
The inspector general has the power to refer possible criminal accusations to prosecutors for charges.
The investigation led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
A lawyer for Gonzales, George J. Terwilliger III, said yesterday that the grand jury referral was "unrelated to anything connected to Judge Gonzales."