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Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Tuesday rejected prosecuting former Justice Department employees who improperly used political litmus tests in hiring decisions, saying he had already taken strong internal steps in response to a "painful" episode.
Two recent reports from the Justice Department inspector general and its ethics office found that about a half-dozen Justice officials -- all but one now gone -- systematically rejected candidates with liberal backgrounds for what were supposed to be nonpolitical jobs and sought out conservative Republicans.
In a speech Tuesday to the American Bar Association in New York, Mukasey acknowledged that some critics have called on the Justice Department to take what he called "more drastic steps" in dealing with the scandal, including prosecuting those at fault and firing those hired through flawed procedures.
"Where there is enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we vigorously prosecute," he said. "But not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime," he said. As the inspector general's report acknowledged, the hiring violations were such a case, because the wrongdoing violated civil service law, but not criminal law, he said.
Mukasey also said it would be unfair, and possibly illegal, for the department to go back and reassign or dismiss those lawyers and other employees who were hired in part because they were seen as trusted conservatives. "Two wrongs do not make a right," he said.
Sen. Leahy not pleased
In response, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said that Mukasey "seems intent on insulating this administration from accountability."
The Vermont Democrat said that Mukasey's remarks Tuesday "appear premature based on the facts and evidence that congressional investigators and the inspector general have uncovered so far" in the hiring scandal. "We must continue to pursue the truth and facts, and hold any wrongdoers accountable," Leahy said.
The inspector general is expected to issue at least two additional reports on the politicization of the Justice Department, including his findings on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in late 2006 under then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The controversies prompted Gonzales' resignation last year.
The federal government makes a distinction between "career" and "political" appointees, and it's a violation of civil service laws and Justice Department policy to hire career employees on the basis of political affiliation or allegiance.
Bar groups could act
Separately, an official in the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said the unit has notified bar associations of its misconduct findings against five lawyers singled out in reports thus far. The bar groups could initiate their own disciplinary proceedings against the lawyers, who include former Justice Department White House liaison Monica Goodling, former attorney general chief of staff Kyle Sampson and former deputy attorney general chief of staff Michael Elston.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Washington is examining whether former civil rights division chief Bradley Schlozman misled Congress last year in testimony about hiring and voter fraud issues. And internal watchdogs are probing whether former lawyers in the White House counsel's office offered misleading accounts about the reasons for the dismissal of former Arkansas U.S. attorney Bud Cummins.