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Audit: Justice Dept. Kept Out Liberal Attorneys

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with a scathing report from the Justice Department inspector general. Today, he released the first installment of a long-awaited report on allegations of misconduct inside the department. It documents extensive political and illegal meddling by Bush administration appointees in the hiring of career attorneys.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The focus of this first report is the Justice Department's Honors Program which is aimed at recruiting top candidates into the federal law enforcement. Justice Department officials from both parties have called the Honors Program the lifeblood of the department. And in the past, the program was run by career lawyers, not political appointees.

But in 2002, that changed. According to the report, the result was that those perceived as Democrats or liberals were vetoed, while those perceived as Republicans or conservatives were hired.

The statistics in the report are damning. For example, in 2002, 15 out of 18 of the most highly academically qualified liberal applicants were rejected even for an interview, while none of the conservatives was rejected. The same year, in the Justice Department's internship program, all applicants who were campus members of the liberal American Constitution Society were dinged, while all the members of the conservative Federalist Society were approved.

The qualifications of the rejected job applicants were truly astonishing: Rhodes scholars, Law Review editors, top honors graduates from the top 20 law schools in the country.

Michael Bromwich came into the Justice Department on a career track, rose to head of the narcotics section in the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York during the Reagan administration and then served as inspector general in the Clinton administration.

Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Former Inspector General, Justice Department): It's a corruption of the process of bringing the best and the brightest into the department.

TOTENBERG: Today's report is damning too in its details. It reveals that one political appointee spent hours, even days, researching groups that applicants belong to. Among the groups eventually deemed disqualified: the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Innocence Project, the Nature Conservancy and the Battered Immigrant Women Project, to name just a few.

Applicants were also rejected if they had clerked for Clinton-appointed judges or if they worked for public defender services. There were political appointees who objected. Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney of San Diego, appealed the rejection of a highly qualified applicant, but she got nowhere and was herself one of the eight U.S. attorneys infamously fired in a scandal that would lead to this very investigation.

According to the report, the political machinations began under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002. Ashcroft's former spokesman, Mark Corallo, said today that the goal was to expand the pool of applicants for more diversity.

Mr. MARK CORALLO (John Ashcroft's Former Spokesman): I don't see any problem with the way it was handled. I think it was a long time coming that the department actually got the leadership involved, brought these kids to Washington. You know, I think it worked out just fine.

TOTENBERG: Although the report reaches a very different conclusion, it also says that after 2002, political influence declined only to reawaken and reach new heights in 2006 under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Today, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he would adopt all the recommendations in the inspector general's report, including specifically banning not just political discrimination but ideological discrimination, too.

But Jamie Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, says this is a stain not easily removed from the Justice Department.

Ms. JAMIE GORELICK (Former Deputy Attorney General, Justice Department): I have spent a career in civil and criminal litigation, and I can't tell you how many people being investigated by the Department of Justice have said to me, oh, I know that this prosecution is political. And I have been able to say to them, that's not the way the Department of Justice works.

Well, from now on, I'm not sure that people will be able to assure the American public and those with whom the Justice Department is viewing that they are being dealt within a straight-up manner. And that is really sickening.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.