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As the U.S. attorney scandal unfolds, it may point to some things that are much more long-lasting: a political transformation of the department from the bottom rungs up, including nonpolitical career jobs. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the civil rights division, which has historically been the most fiercely apolitical division in the department and where voting-rights cases, among other things, are handled. In 2003, the Administration changed the rules to abolish the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers and gave that job instead to political appointees. Last year the Boston Globe, analyzing hiring data it had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reported that the ranks of the division were being filled with lawyers who had strong conservative credentials but little civil rights experience. That has shown up in the direction the division has taken, says Joseph Rich at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
Rich, a former chief of the voting section in the civil rights division who worked at the Justice Department for 35 years before leaving in 2005, says that from 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African-American or Native American voters. Instead, he alleges, U.S.attorneys were told to give priority to voter-fraud cases, which civil rights groups have long contended are actually meant to depress voter turnout in minority communities.
"In all the years I was in the Department of Justice, there was nothing close to the type of politicization that's occurring in this Administration," says Rich. "Outright hostility to career employees who disagreed with the political appointees was evident early on. Seven career managers were removed in the civil rights division. I personally was ordered to change performance evaluations of several attorneys under my supervision. I was told to include critical comments about those whose recommendations ran counter to the political will of the Administration."
Rich has been particularly critical of Bradley Schlozman, who was chief of the division until March 2006, alleging that Schlozman tried to suppress minority voting in Missouri by filing indictments of activists who were registering voters. Justice points out that two of those indicted have since pleaded guilty. Schlozman, who did not reply to requests for comment, has been called to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 15. Justice insists it has vigorously enforced civil rights laws. Spokesman Dean Boyd said evaluations of department personnel have long involved "the input of both career management and political appointees."
As the congressional investigation of the Justice Department deepens, Gonzales is certain to be getting more questions about the role that political appointees may have played in compromising the legally neutral mission of the department. Shortly before Goodling resigned, congressional sources say, she broke down in tears in the office of a colleague. "All I ever wanted to do," she sobbed, "was serve this President, this Administration, this department." What she didn't understand then was that she had her priorities backward.
with reporting by Brian Bennett, Mark Thompson and Adam Zagorin/Washington