Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Tuesday said former Justice Department officials will not face prosecution for letting improper political considerations drive hirings of prosecutors, immigration judges and other career government lawyers.
Mukasey used his sharpest words yet to criticize the senior leaders who took part in or failed to stop illegal hiring practices during the tenure of his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales. The scandal reverberated throughout the Bush administration and ultimately factored prominently in Gonzales' decision to resign.
But, Mukasey told delegates to the American Bar Association annual meeting, "not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime. In this instance, the two joint reports found only violations of the civil service laws."
For nearly two years, top advisers to Gonzales discriminated against applicants for career jobs who weren't Republican or conservative loyalists, an internal investigation concluded last month.
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.
Yet Monica Goodling, who served as Gonzales' counselor and White House liaison, routinely asked career job applicants about politics, the report concluded.
Despite Mukasey's comments on Tuesday, CBS News producer Stephanie Lambidakis reports that the most important investigation - the one involving the firings of U.S. attorneys - has not been completed, so there is no way to know whether anyone could face prosecution.
Further, the other major OIG investigation - involving the politicization of the Civil Rights Division - could lead to criminal prosecution, Lambidakis adds. Brad Schlozman, the former top Civil Rigths Division official, is under grand jury investigation for possible false statements in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several current and former officials have been questioned and some have been subpoenaed to testify.
Mukasey, who once served as a federal judge in New York, said the Justice Department has taken steps under his leadership to prevent a recurrence of the hiring scandal.
"I have made repeatedly clear...that it is neither permissible nor acceptable to consider political affiliations in the hiring of career department employees," Mukasey said.
If the problems were to recur, Mukasey said he is confident department employees would speak up.
That did not happen during Gonzales' tenure, he said. Gonzales appeared unaware of the political hiring process outlined by Goodling and his then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, the report said.
"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," Mukasey said.
Mukasey said these reports typically are painful, but important.
"Professionalism is alive and well at the Justice Department," he said.
Some candidates for career Justice Department jobs who were excluded because of politics could be invited to apply for new positions, Mukasey said.
He also ruled out firing or reassigning those who were hired under the now-discarded evaluation process.
"Two wrongs do not make a right," he said. "People who were hired in an improper way didn't themselves do anything wrong."