WASHINGTON — Attorney General Michael Mukasey conceded Tuesday that high-ranking Justice Department officials failed to stop illegal hiring practices that favored conservatives over liberals because of what he described as a "systemic" problem within the department.
Two recent Justice Department watchdog reports found that department officials under Mukasey's predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, intentionally weeded out liberal-leaning applicants in favor of conservative ones for various jobs ranging from internships to prosecutor slots and immigration judgeships.
Mukasey, who took over the department last November after Gonzales resigned under fire, said he'd put a stop to the practices and would now attempt to contact applicants who'd been rejected for political reasons and encourage them to reapply for other jobs.
His remarks to the American Bar Association represented the most direct public acknowledgement that a wider problem had existed within the department.
"There is no denying it: The system failed," Mukasey said in his prepared speech. "There was a failure of supervision by senior officials in the department. And there was a failure on the part of some employees to cry foul when they were aware, or should have been aware, of problems."
Democrats had demanded that Mukasey take more forceful action after the reports by the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility came out earlier this summer.
The reports identified at least seven officials who'd used improper hiring practices. Only one remains employed by the department, and is now on detail in Iraq.
Mukasey initially had appeared to downplay the matter when testifying before Congress soon after the first report, eliciting sharp criticism from lawmakers, who accused him of ignoring a larger pattern.
While acknowledging the more widespread problem, Mukasey rejected what he described as "drastic steps," such as prosecuting department lawyers singled out in the reports. Nor, he said, would he fire employees who'd been hired under the tainted system.
Mukasey said the officials "most directly implicated" in the scandal already had left the department. A department spokesman wouldn't comment on the status of John Nowacki, the former department spokesman who's in Iraq.
Mukasey's conclusions echo earlier remarks by Inspector General Glenn Fine, who co-authored the reports. Fine has told Congress that officials violated civil service laws but didn't appear to have committed any crimes. The most severe punishment for a civil service violation is firing.
Fine also testified that he didn't find evidence of perjury, although he discovered that several officials had provided inaccurate information to Congress, his investigators and their own department.
Fine's investigators were especially critical of the hiring of dozens of immigration judges. Mukasey, however, defended the judges in question, including one who's since been promoted to be a member of the panel that handles appeals. Mukasey said it would be "unfair — and quite possibly illegal" — to fire or reassign the judges.
The inspector general and the Office of Professional Responsibility continue to investigate whether partisan politics prompted the administration's controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
The inspector general also is looking into whether partisan politics influenced the Justice Department's handling of civil-rights and voting rights cases.
As a result, a federal grand jury is examining whether Bradley Schlozman, a former acting chief of the department's Civil Rights Division, committed perjury, said a person who's familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because of the secrecy of the grand jury process. One possible focus of the investigation is whether Schlozman testified falsely under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
ON THE WEB