Officials describe politically charged Justice Dept.
Why am I not a bit surprised?
(05-12) 04:00 PDT Washington -- Two years ago, Robin Ashton, a seasoned criminal prosecutor at the Department of Justice, learned from her boss that a promised promotion was no longer hers.
"You have a Monica problem," Ashton was told, according to several Justice Department officials. Referring to Monica Goodling, a 31-year-old, relatively inexperienced lawyer who had only recently arrived in the office, the boss added, "She believes you're a Democrat and doesn't feel you can be trusted."
Ashton's ouster -- she left the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys for another Justice Department post two weeks later -- was a critical early step in a plan that would later culminate in the ouster of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
Goodling would soon be quizzing applicants for civil service jobs at Justice Department headquarters with questions that several U.S. attorneys said were inappropriate, such as who was their favorite president and Supreme Court justice. One department official said an applicant was even asked, "Have you ever cheated on your wife?"
Goodling also moved to block the hiring of prosecutors with resumes that suggested they might be Democrats, even though they were seeking posts that were supposed to be nonpartisan, according to two Justice officials.
And she helped maintain lists of all the U.S. attorneys that graded their loyalty to the Bush administration, including work on prior political campaigns, and noted if they were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
By the time Goodling resigned in April -- after her role in the firing of the federal prosecutors became public and she had been promoted to the role of White House liaison -- she and other senior Justice officials had revamped personnel practices affecting employees from the top of the agency to the bottom.
The people who spoke about Goodling's role at the department, including eight current Justice Department lawyers and staff members, did so only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Several of them added that they found her activities objectionable and damaging to the integrity of the department.
Goodling, who is under investigation by the agency's inspector general and ethics office, as well as by Congress, has declined to testify before a House panel, citing her Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid making self-incriminating statements. Her lawyer, John Dowd, declined on Friday to comment.
But a judge in U.S. District Court in Washington signed an order Friday to grant her limited immunity, which will allow House investigators to compel her to answer questions.
Justice Department officials declined to respond to questions about Goodling's actions and refused to allow some agency employees to speak with a reporter about them.
"Whether or not Ms. Goodling engaged in prohibited personnel practices is the subject of an ongoing investigation," a written statement said. "Given the ongoing nature of the investigation, we are unable to comment on the allegations."
Goodling, now 33, arrived at the agency at the start of the Bush administration after working as an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Her legal experience was limited; she had graduated in 1999 from Regent University School of Law, which was founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.
Deeply religious and politically conservative, Goodling seemed to believe that part of her job was to bring people with similar values into the Justice Department, several former colleagues said.
Goodling first worked in the Justice Department's press office and then for less than a year in the executive office, which oversees budgets, management and performance evaluations of U.S. attorneys. She then moved to the Attorney General's Office, where she became the White House liaison and collected a $133,000 annual salary, according to federal records.
Goodling's mandate over hiring expanded significantly in March 2006, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed a confidential memorandum delegating to her and Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff, the power to appoint or fire all department political appointees other than the U.S. attorneys. That included interim U.S. attorneys and heads of the divisions that handle civil rights, public corruption, environmental crimes and other matters.
At the same time, Goodling, Sampson and John Nowacki, another Regent University graduate, were helping prepare the final list of U.S. attorneys to be dismissed, according to e-mail messages released to congressional investigators. Goodling was also calling around the country trying to identify up-and-coming lawyers -- and good Republicans -- who could replace them, said one Justice Department official who received such a call.
Eric Lipton, New York TimesSaturday, May 12, 2007