Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
The Justice Department confirmed Monday what the rest of us have known since last spring, during the first few days of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Under the reign of error of former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the once-proud, once-professional Justice Department became a refuge for partisans and cronies, hired by scoundrels, and overseen by leaders who purposely turned a blind eye to the illegal machinations of their subordinates.
The damning report by the Office of Professional Responsibility establishes for all time that former Justice officials Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson, to name just a few, violated federal law and Department policy when they "improperly considered political or ideological affiliations in screening candidates for certain career positions" at Justice. Over and over again, these lawyers and public servants put their ideological goals over the work of the nation.
From the OIG Report: "We concluded that the most systemic use of improper political or ideological affiliations in screening candidates for career positions occurred in the selection of immigration judges, who work in the Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review…. Goodling screened candidates for immigration judges using a variety of techniques for determining their political affiliation, including researching the candidates' political contributions and voter registration records, and using an Internet search string containing political terms."
In Goodling's world, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was too liberal because "she's pro choice" and subordinates were told via memo that they could hire "one more good American" to the Department - meaning one more conservative ideologue. Read the report yourself and then tell me whether you feel comfortable with a bureaucracy - staffed by alumni of a bottom-rung law school - where an unqualified counter-terrorism job candidate actually gets a job helping to defend us because the more qualified person's wife happens to be a local Democratic politician.
This is the sort of conduct that vitiates the rule of law, corrodes it from within, because Goodling's misconduct empowered others (the partisan immigration judges she selected) to, in turn, make their own politicized judgments in an area of the law that had been up to that point refreshingly clear of such politics. If it were just Goodling and Sampson alone it would be bad enough. But their conduct spawned a whole new generation of hacks and cronies. And that's why the Department suffered its worst scandal since Watergate.
Upon the release of the report, current Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey immediately declared that he is going to "continue to act" to ensure that "the conduct described in the [OIG] report does not occur again at the Department." Good. First thing he should do is have his federal lawyers sue Goodling and Sampson in a civil case to try to recoup the taxpayer dollars that were spent unraveling the mess that they intentionally made. Any money they earn from any future book deals or speaking gigs ought to be turned back to the Treasury.
The second thing the Attorney General ought to do is have his professional lawyers scour the testimony of Goodling and Sampson before Congress last year to determine whether either or both committed perjury. Their immunity deals, I suspect, did not cover false testimony before the legislators. If the federal government could spend its time and our money going after Martha Stewart or I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, it sure seems reasonable to me to go after people who tried to subvert justice at Justice. Otherwise, the feds should never again try to make an example out of a "celebrity defendant" by bringing to trial a case that normally would be settled out by plea bargain.
Indeed, if ever there was a time for the Justice Department to use litigation to educate the American people about the sins of illegality in government this is it. If nothing else, litigation now would ensure that future bureaucrats are much more mindful of the professional and non-partisan obligations they have. I mean, Goodling and Sampson and Company in just a few short years ruined the high tradition of nonpartisan professionalism within the career-service cadre at Justice. If that doesn't merit an in-court follow up I don't know what does. All Martha did was lie about a single stock deal.
Nor should Mukasey wait until he is prompted into action by a perjury referral by the House Judiciary Committee, which to its credit has not allowed the Justice Department to sweep any of this under the rug. The executive branch - the White House and Karl Rove and Gonzales and the rest - created this mess. And the executive branch should fix it without any prodding from the legislators. The answer to malfeasance on the part of Goodling and Sampson is not misfeasance on the part of Mukasey. He should act, decisively and aggressively, before he leaves Washington at the end of the Bush Presidency.
Let me put it one other way. Goodling and Sampson should not be allowed to go gently into the good night of private consulting work or whatever else disgraced public servants do. It's bad enough that Gonzales is making five-figures for speeches in which he blathers on blindly and without credibility about his role in fighting the war on terror. The government's forgiveness should end with him. And its capacity for earnest and relentless and dispassionate justice ought to begin with future lawsuits against two people who knew right from wrong and who cheated anyway, all in the name of turning a decent institution into just another instrument of partisan power.