When Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, Democrats had one chief concern. Yes, Fine’s report earlier this week had been bluntly critical of the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales, but that's where it all seemed to stop.
Investigators determined that department officials had broken the law and even in certain cases lied about the politicized hiring for career positions. But as Fine made clear, he didn’t think any of those were criminal violations. Also, the department lawyers and immigration judges revealed by Fine’s investigators to have been hired because they’d had the right political bona fides -- as opposed to the right qualifications -- are going to stay where they are, thanks to the very civil service rules that officials violated in hiring them.
“It looks like they got away with it, scot-free,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), “and that the so-called ‘loyal Bushies’ that they stuffed into these positions will also have gotten away with it and will be there, essentially, indefinitely, protected by civil service protections that they don't deserve.”
Fine explained that the laws broken by Goodling and others were civil service laws, which only apply to federal employees. Since Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson, the two key officials fingered in the report, had left the department, there was little that could be done. He also said that his investigators didn’t think a criminal case could be made on the basis of any of the false statements enumerated in the report (e.g. one official caused false information to be passed to a reporter).
But Fine didn’t think that meant Goodling and the others were getting off scot-free. Their actions had been “exposed and condemned.” His office would do what it could to prevent those singled out in the report from working at the Justice Department or any branch in the federal government again, he said. And the department would soon be notifying the bars to which the offending lawyers belonged of their misconduct. The bar could choose to revoke a lawyer’s law license.
Fine also suggests the effects of the politicization could be overcome. With regard to immigration judges, for instance, only a “small number,” 20 or so, out of the more than 230 judges sitting on immigration courts, had been appointed by a politicized process, he said. That wasn’t an “overwhelming” number.
The department instituted a spate of reforms in the wake of the U.S. attorney scandal last year that should help prevent further abuse, he said, and officials would just have to be vigilant going forward.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wanted to know if Fine though that the law should be changed to make what Goodling did a crime. Fine demurred, saying such a law might unintentionally cast too wide a net.
Sen. Whitehouse had another suggestion: What if there was a law that made it possible to undo the damage? Civil service employees, unlike political appointees, are usually afforded protections from immediate dismissal. What if a law made it so employees revealed to have been hired via a corrupted process didn’t get those protections? Such a law, allowing employees to be dismissed or forced to compete against others for their position, would “take the prize out of the game,” Whitehouse offered. Fine thought that was an “interesting proposition.”