WASHINGTON - Scores of highly credentialed young lawyers and law students were denied interviews for coveted positions at the Justice Department because of an illegal screening process that took political and ideological views and affiliations into account instead of merit, Justice Department investigators concluded in a report released yesterday.
In 2006, some applicants for sought-after jobs in the department honors program and summer intern program were rejected because they were members of the American Constitution Society or Planned Parenthood or because they expressed concern about gender discrimination in the military, the report found.
Other students or graduates who were brushed aside included a University of Alabama law graduate, ranked sixth in the class, who had written a paper on the detention of people under the USA Patriot Act, a Yale Law School graduate who was fluent in Arabic, and a Georgetown law student who had worked for Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign.
Justice Department officials told investigators the applicants were turned down for reasons of academic performance. But most, if not all, of the applicants had superior records, and those explanations were not deemed credible, according to the report.
Career staff members and other senior officials openly complained about bias in the process, but their complaints were ignored, investigators found.
The findings are contained in the first of several official reports expected on the tenure of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, and allegations that the longtime friend and confidant of President Bush allowed political considerations to influence the hiring of career employees and other functions at the Justice Department.
While the report does not directly accuse Gonzales of misconduct, two Justice officials were found to have violated federal civil service law and department regulations in connection with screening applicants. Two other officials were criticized for exercising poor judgment and failing to aggressively address the issue of illegal hiring after concerns of career employees surfaced internally.
Investigators said they were unable to conclude who gave the order to start employing a political litmus test, although the report said some of the people interviewed pointed the finger at former Gonzales aide Monica Goodling, who resigned last year after acknowledging in sworn testimony that she might have violated the law in evaluating applicants for career Justice positions. Many of the records associated with the interviews were destroyed, the report said.
"Today's report confirms that the Bush administration was engaged in a deliberate effort to inject partisan politics into the administration of justice," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The honors and summer intern programs, he said, "were made into a recruitment firm for conservatives, rewarding ideology with career advancement."
The Justice Department last year implemented new procedures to remove the taint of politics from the hiring process. US Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said yesterday that the department was implementing additional reforms recommended by authors of the report.
"I have . . . 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," Mukasey said.