Bush Scandals List

363. Political Selection in Justice Department internship programs

The Justice Department (DOJ) administers an Honors and Summer Law Intern Program (SLIP). The idea behind these is to encourage participants to take up careers at the DOJ. Indeed the Honors Program is the only avenue for hiring candidates straight out of law school. Traditionally, selection to these programs was made by career Justice attorneys and on the applicants’ merits. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft transferred final selection to political appointees within the DOJ. The result was that candidates were chosen for their political leanings and not their legal and educational qualifications.

On April 9, 2007, DOJ lawyers wrote a letter to Patrick Leahy and John Conyers, the Chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees respectively complaining that their recommendations had been passed to the Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty’s office where they had been dramatically cut. On December 5, 2006, supervisors met with Michael Elston, McNulty’s Chief of Staff (see item 2). Elston told them they had not “done their jobs” and that he had to have a “screening panel” to go over and “research” the candidates. Later, comparing those accepted to those who were not, the letter writers noted, the “one common denominator appeared repeatedly.” Rejected applicants, some who were summa cum laude at Harvard and Yale, had Democratic and liberal associations.

On June 24, 2008, the DOJ Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) issued a report on this matter. It found that for the Honors Program in 2002 of 911 recommendations 307 were deselected; in 2003, of 635 only 6 were deselected; in 2004 of 572 only 13 were deselected. In 2005, rejections began to increase. Of 624, there were 46 deselections.

Finally, in 2006 (the year to which the Congressional letterwriters referred), of 602 candidates recommended, 186 were rejected. The report found that applicants with liberal affiliations (83 out of 150) were rejected at 3 times the rate of conservative ones (5 out of 28): 55% to 18%.

With regard to SLIP, in 2006, of 451 recommended candidates 202 were rejected. As with the Honors Program, rejections in the previous 3 years were low and ranged between 10 and 23. Similarly, the only other year with a high rejection rate was 2002 where 185 out of 498 were deselected. 82% of those with liberal affiliations (56 of 68) were rejected. 13% of those with conservative ones (2 of 16) were deselected.

In 2006, the “screening committee” was chaired by Michael Elston and had two members: Daniel Fridman, a career prosecutor and Assistant USA for the Southern District of Florida detailed to McNulty’s office and Esther Slater McDonald, Counsel to the Acting Associate Attorney General Bill Mercer (see item 197). Fridman was found to have acted appropriately and to have communicated his concerns in a professional way. The report found that McDonald who was “at the Department less than a month when she received this assignment and was only 3 years out of law school” had

inappropriately evaluated candidates based on the candidates’ political or ideological affiliations. McDonald wrote that she voted against candidates because their essays used “leftist commentary and buzz words” such as “environmental justice,” “social justice,” “making policy,” or “anything else that involves legislating rather than enforcing.” She also expressed disapproval of candidates’ affiliations with liberal organizations such as the American Constitution Society, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Greenpeace, and Greenaction.

It concluded that

McDonald committed misconduct and violated Department policies and civil service law by considering political or ideological affiliations in assessing Honors Program and SLIP candidates.

The report reserves most of its criticism for Elston and concludes that he too “violated federal law and Department policy by deselecting candidates based on their liberal affiliations.” However, the report goes on to note that since both Elston and McDonald have resigned their positions, “they are no longer subject to discipline by the Department.” The report finally says that Louis DeFalaise, director of the Office of Attorney Recruitment Management (who in years past was the one to sign off on selections) and Bill Mercer had not provided sufficient oversight to the process. Left out of the report is why Mercer ever put someone so junior unsupervised in charge of anything.

In April 2007 shortly after the letter to Congress, control of the selection process for the Honors Program and SLIP was returned to career DOJ personnel. This episode is just another example of what lengths Bush officials went to not only politicize the Department of Justice but stack its career positions with Bush ideologues.

As a postscript, Monica Goodling (see items 2, 156, and 336) who has also been involved in political motivated hirings and firings was reported by Elston to have argued for keeping the political screening committees. Goodling for her part declined to be interviewed by investigators on her role in this affair.

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