Saturday, May 12, 2007
WASHINGTON, May 11 — Two years ago, Robin C. Ashton, a seasoned criminal prosecutor at the Department of Justice, learned from her boss that a promised promotion was no longer hers.
“You have a Monica problem,” Ms. Ashton was told, according to several Justice Department officials. Referring to Monica M. Goodling, a 31-year-old, relatively inexperienced lawyer who had only recently arrived in the office, the boss added, “She believes you’re a Democrat and doesn’t feel you can be trusted.”
Ms. Ashton’s ouster — she left the Executive Office for United States Attorneys for another Justice Department post two weeks later — was a critical early step in a plan that would later culminate in the ouster of nine United States attorneys last year.
Ms. Goodling would soon be quizzing applicants for civil service jobs at Justice Department headquarters with questions that several United States attorneys said were inappropriate, like who was their favorite president and Supreme Court justice. One department official said an applicant was even asked, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?”
Ms. Goodling also moved to block the hiring of prosecutors with résumés that suggested they might be Democrats, even though they were seeking posts that were supposed to be nonpartisan, two department officials said.
And she helped maintain lists of all the United States attorneys that graded their loyalty to the Bush administration, including work on past political campaigns, and noted if they were members of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
By the time Ms. Goodling resigned in April — after her role in the firing of the prosecutors became public and she had been promoted to the role of White House liaison — she and other senior department officials had revamped personnel practices affecting employees from the top of the agency to the bottom.
The people who spoke about Ms. Goodling’s role at the department, including eight current Justice Department lawyers and staff, did so only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Several added that they found her activities objectionable and damaging to the integrity of the department.
Ms. Goodling, who is under investigation by the department’s inspector general and ethics office, as well as Congress, has declined to testify before a House panel, citing her Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid making self-incriminating statements. Her lawyer, John M. Dowd, declined to comment on Friday.
A judge in Federal District Court in Washington signed an order Friday to grant Ms. Goodling limited immunity, which will allow House investigators to compel her to answer questions.
Justice Department officials declined to respond to questions about Ms. Goodling’s actions and refused to allow some agency employees to speak with a reporter about them.
“Whether or not Ms. Goodling engaged in prohibited personnel practices is the subject of an ongoing investigation,” a written statement said. “Given the ongoing nature of the investigation, we are unable to comment on the allegations.”
H. E. Cummins III, one of the fired prosecutors, said Justice Department officials should have recognized that Ms. Goodling’s strategy was flawed from the start.
“She was inexperienced, way too naïve and a little overzealous,” said Mr. Cummins, a Republican from Arkansas. “She might have somehow figured that what she was doing was the right thing. But a more experienced person would understand you don’t help the party by trying to put political people in there. You put the best people you can find in there.”
Ms. Goodling, now 33, arrived at the department at the start of the Bush administration after working as an opposition researcher for the Republican National Committee during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Her legal experience was limited; she had graduated in 1999 from Regent University School of Law, which was founded by Pat Robertson. Deeply religious and politically conservative, Ms. Goodling seemed to believe that part of her job was to bring people with similar values into the Justice Department, several former colleagues said.
She joined the department in the press office. Soon after, two lawyers said, Ms. Goodling complained that staff members in Puerto Rico had used rap music in a public service announcement intended to discourage gun crime.
“That is just outrageous,” she told one department lawyer. “How could they use government money for an ad that featured rap music? That kind of music glorifies violence.”
Ms. Goodling’s shift to the executive office, which oversees budgets, management and performance evaluations of United States attorneys, occurred as officials in the White House and Justice Department were considering replacing a number of the top prosecutors. The first lists of possible targets had already been drawn up. But while those lists were being refined, Ms. Goodling, who would become deputy director of the executive office, was quietly helping make other changes.
In addition to making clear that she wanted Ms. Ashton out, a Justice Department employee still in that office said, Ms. Goodling took actions that encouraged a second experienced prosecutor, Kelly Shackelford, to move on. James B. Comey, who served as deputy attorney general from 2003 to 2005, said Ms. Ashton and Ms. Shackelford were excellent lawyers, whose politics he did not know nor would he ever have asked. Ms. Ashton and Ms. Shackelford declined to comment.
Ms. Goodling helped recruit new office managers who included John Nowacki, another Regent University graduate, who had little experience as a prosecutor, but had previously served as the director of legal policy at a conservative research group, the Free Congress Foundation.
She also insisted that she be given final approval in hiring assistant United States attorneys in offices where there was an interim chief prosecutor. Interim United States attorneys always had to seek permission for hiring, but the review was typically lower level and involved checking that sufficient slots were available, current and former employees said.
But Ms. Goodling’s reviews delayed hiring decisions for weeks or months, creating problems in busy offices, and her concerns at times appeared to be for partisan reasons.
In one case, Ms. Goodling told a federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia that she was not signing off on an applicant who had graduated from Howard University Law School, and then worked at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“He appeared, based on his résumé, to be a liberal Democrat,” Ms. Goodling told Jeffrey A. Taylor, the acting United States attorney in Washington, according to two of the department employees who asked not to be named. “That wasn’t what she was looking for.”
Mr. Taylor ultimately found a way to go around Ms. Goodling in hiring the applicant.
She appeared to take similar concerns about political leanings into account when making decisions about promotions and special assignments for Justice Department lawyers.
Robert Nicholson, a career lawyer from the Southern District of Florida, was asked some unusual questions when he applied for a post at the Justice Department headquarters, according to two department lawyers, including Margaret M. Chiara, the former chief prosecutor Western Michigan.
“Which Supreme Court justice do you most admire and why? Which legislator do you most admire and why? And which president do you most admire and why?” Mr. Nicholson was asked by Ms. Goodling, according to Ms. Chiara and the other lawyer, who asked not to be named.
Mr. Nicholson, who did not get the job, did not dispute the account, but he declined to comment, citing the investigation of Ms. Goodling.
In another instance, two Justice Department officials said, Ms. Goodling decided she did not like the applicants for one prestigious posting at department headquarters and decided to offer the job to David C. Woll Jr., a young lawyer who she knew was a Republican. In the interview, a department official said, she asked Mr. Woll if he had ever cheated on his wife. Mr. Woll declined to comment for this article.
Last month, a group of department employees wrote anonymously to Congressional investigators alleging that political considerations were influencing the selection of summer interns and applicants for the Attorney General’s Honors Program, which hires promising lawyers right out of law school. The letter did not say if Ms. Goodling was involved in the process. Department officials declined to comment on the matter.
Hundreds of applications for the honors slots were winnowed by career lawyers, then reviewed by top political appointees, who removed many candidates, the letter said. “Most of those struck from the list had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for ‘liberal’ causes, or otherwise appeared to have ‘liberal’ leanings,” the letter said.
Ms. Goodling worked less than a year at the executive office, then moved to the attorney general’s office, where she became the White House liaison and collected a $133,000 annual salary, according to federal records. She insisted that she retain her power to review hiring of assistant United States attorneys, two department employees said.
Her mandate over hiring expanded significantly in March 2006, when Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales signed a confidential memorandum delegating to her and D. Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff, the power to appoint or fire all department political appointees other than the United States attorneys. That included interim United States attorneys and heads of the divisions that handle civil rights, public corruption, environmental crimes and other matters.
At the same time, Ms. Goodling, Mr. Sampson and Mr. Nowacki, according to e-mail released to Congressional investigators, were helping prepare the final list of United States attorneys to be dismissed. Ms. Goodling was also calling around the country trying to identify up-and-coming lawyers — and good Republicans — who could replace them, said one Justice Department official who received such a call.
Mr. Comey said that if the accusations about Ms. Goodling’s partisan actions were true, the damage was deep and real.
“I don’t know how you would put that genie back in the bottle, if people started to believe we were hiring our A.U.S.A.s (Assistant United States Attorneys) for political reasons,” he said at a House hearing this month. “I don’t know that there’s any window you can go to to get the department’s reputation back if that kind of stuff is going on.”