Scandal: Politicization of Fed. Gov’t

Updated Sept. 29

For the past couple years, the White House has been under fire for politicizing the federal government. A battery of investigations has focused on two government agencies in particular: the Department of Justice and the Environment Protection Agency.

Department of Justice

Nearly a year after former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left the post under heavy criticism for the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys, DoJ Inspector General Glenn Fine released two reports identifying illegal political hiring practices at the department.

The first (PDF) uncovered DoJ officials' political manipulation of the agency's hiring of interns and entry-level attorneys: In both 2002 and 2006, scores of applicants perceived to be Democrats were systematically rejected. The second (PDF) identified broader violations of civil service law in the hiring for non-political positions like prosecutors, management, and immigration judges. That report focused in particular on the conduct of Monica Goodling, formerly the department's White House liaison, and Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff.

The IG released a report (PDF) on the U.S. attorney firings on September 29. The report found "significant evidence that political partisan considerations were an important factor" in the firings of "several" of the U.S. attorneys. IG Fine recommended that a special prosecutor continue the probe, because his was stonewalled by several key witnesses. Attorney General Michael Mukasey hired a federal prosecutor from Connecticut to do so.

Another IG report, on politicization at the civil rights division, is forthcoming. One former civil rights division official is reportedly the subject of a grand jury inquiry for possible perjury.

Though Fine's reports have been bluntly critical of several officials, the IG stopped short of calling for criminal prosecutions or removing judges and lawyers who were hired in order to cultivate a conservative legal "farm system."

Democrats say that politicization at the department also spread to the handling of certain cases, particularly the controversial prosecution by a U.S. attorney of former Democratic Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. His conviction on bribery charges is currently being appealed, and a congressional investigation continues.

Environmental Protection Agency

Meanwhile, at the EPA, Administrator Stephen Johnson has been criticized by Dems and environmental groups for making a number of decisions in accord with White House policy but against the advice of EPA staff scientists.

In December 2007, Johnson denied California the right to limit greenhouse gases despite his legal and technical staff's unanimous recommendation that he grant it. Later, it surfaced that Johnson had planned to grant the waiver but changed his mind after speaking with the White House. In March 2008, the EPA was further criticized for setting laxer standards for ozone than the EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee had recommended. A congressional investigation found that the White House had alerted Johnson to President Bush's opposition to the stricter ozone standards just hours before the EPA finalized the new rule.

Then, in a survey released by the Union of Concerned Scientists on April 23, more than half of the 1,600 EPA scientists who responded claimed to have experienced incidents of political interference in their work. The report unleashed a barrage of congressional fury and a letter from Rep. Henry Waxman, House Oversight Committee chairman, warning Johnson that he would face questions about the survey at a May Congressional hearing on the new ozone standards.

 In early May, the controversy heightened when the Bush administration forced out Mary Gade, the EPA's top administrator in the Midwest, after she battled with Dow Chemical to clean up its dioxin pollution. In that same month, Johnson refused to hand over several documents that the House Oversight Committee had subpoenaed or to answer questions about his conversations with the White House at the May 20 congressional hearing.

The House Oversight Committee finally scheduled a vote (pdf) to decide whether Johnson should be held in contempt of court. But on the day of that vote, President Bush asserted executive privilege, which delayed the committee's vote.

On June 25, senior EPA officials revealed that the White House had refused to open a December e-mail from the EPA concluding that greenhouse gases are pollutants that necessitate regulation. Those conclusions were a response to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required the EPA to determine whether greenhouse gases were damaging to health or environment.

The Washington Post further reported that not only had the White House refused to open the e-mail, but it had also tried to silence the report, demanding that the e-mail be recalled. The EPA finally released the report in July, but it was published with an introduction prepared by the White House that basically repudiated the findings ($). It was also reported in July that Vice President Cheney's office tried to delete key passages of congressional testimony about the link between climate change and health and swayed the opinion ($) of Bush administration officials on emissions regulation.


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