In one case, a Harvard Law student was passed over after criticizing the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. In another, a Georgetown University student who had previously worked for a Democratic senator and congressman didn't make the cut.
Even senior Justice Department officials flinched at what appeared to be hiring decisions based - improperly and illegally - on politics, according to the internal report.
"Individuals at the department were rejecting any of our candidates who could be construed as left-wing or who were perceived, based on their appearances and resumes and so forth, as being more liberal," Kevin Ohlson, deputy director of the department's executive office of immigration review, complained to Justice investigators.
The report marked the culmination of a yearlong investigation by Justice's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility into whether Republican politics were driving hiring polices at the once fiercely independent department.
The investigation is one of several that examine accusations of White House political meddling within the Justice Department. Those accusations were initially driven by the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in late 2006 and culminated with the ouster of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general last September.
In 2006, under Gonzales' watch, political party and ideology were the chief criteria for getting highly-coveted entry-level jobs in the department, reports CBS' Stephanie Lambidakis. Two former top officials, Mike Elston and Esther Slater McDonald, are accused of outright misconduct for violating civil service laws that ban discrimination, according to the audit.
Elston and McDonald scoured Google and MySpace to screen top Harvard, Yale and Stanford graduates for their political leanings.
For example, Lambidakis points out, three candidates were rejected as "leftists" because they belonged to Greenpeace and anti-poverty groups and a top Harvard law school graduate was flagged for being a member of the Council on American Islamic Relations. One Justice Department official even wondered in an e-mail whether striking another highly qualified Harvard graduate who worked for Planned Parenthood "could be perceived as politically motivated."
The report issued Tuesday concluded that politics and ideology disqualified a significant number of newly graduated lawyers and summer interns seeking coveted Justice jobs in 2006.
As early as 2002, career Justice employees complained to internal watchdogs that Bush administration political appointees had largely taken over the hiring process for summer interns and so-called Honors Program jobs for newly graduated law students. For years, job applicants have been judged on their grades, the quality of their law schools, their legal clerkships and other experiences.
But in 2002, many applicants who identified themselves as Democrats or were members of liberal-leaning organizations were rejected while GOP loyalists with fewer legal skills were hired, the report found. Of 911 students who applied for full-time Honors jobs that year, 100 were identified as liberal - and 80 were rejected. By comparison, 46 were identified as conservative, and only four didn't get a job offer.
The political filtering of applicants ebbed for the three years between 2003 and 2005, the inquiry found, then resumed by 2006.
Of 602 Honors candidates that year, 150 were identified as liberal - including 83 who were cut. Five of 28 self-described conservatives were rejected.
Investigators blamed two political appointees on a three-person screening committee for the preferential treatment. It also singled out one of them, former deputy attorney general staff chief, Elston, for failing to make sure the hirings were proper - and giving evasive and misleading answers about why they were not.
An attorney for Elston, who is now in private practice, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Although federal law prohibits discriminating against government job applicants based on their politics, it's unlikely that any of those involved in the hiring process will be penalized since they no longer work at the department. A Justice official said the department is not considering pressing criminal charges or taking or civil actions against them.
Democrats quickly seized on the report to bludgeon the Bush administration for playing politics with a department sworn to uphold the law fairly.
"This is the first smoking gun," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We believe there will be more to come. This report shows clearly that politics and ideology replaced merit as the hiring criteria at one of our most prized civil service departments."
Gonzales' successor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, said he agrees with all the audit's recommendations to prevent politics from influencing the screening process and has already moved on them.
"I have also 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 in a statement.