By William Fisher 5/23/07

Monica Goodling, the former White House liaison for the Justice Department, confirmed Wednesday during testimony before a House Judiciary Committee hearing that she used a political litmus test in screening applicants for hire as Justice Department employees in what appears to be a violation of numerous federal laws.

Goodling testified that she never discussed the firings of eight US attorneys with White House Political Adviser Karl Rove or former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, nor did she recommend additions to or deletions from the list of political appointees to be terminated. She also said she did not know who compiled the list, but admitted she “may have gone too far” in questioning prospective career applicants about their political affiliations.

In a hearing room that appeared to contain almost as many media representatives as audience members, Goodling said she “may have asked inappropriate political questions” of applicants for civil service posts at the Department of Justice in an effort to implement the priorities of the Bush Administration.

She said, “I crossed the line,” with regard to applicants for civil service positions, “But I didn’t mean to.” She added that she simply “wanted to make sure” that job applicants were “ideologically compatible” with the administration. She said her interviews with job applicants often included questions about who they voted for in the 2004 election.

Goodling told the committee that Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, who resigned earlier this month, may have misled Congress in his Senate testimony earlier this month by omitting facts she had presented to him.

She also asserted that she believed the central role in the forced resignations of the eight US attorneys (USAs) was played by Kyle Sampson, who resigned as chief of staff for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales after the firestorm caused by the USA terminations.

Goodling was accompanied at the hearing by three of her attorneys, led by high-profile Washington lawyer John Dowd. Dowd has said that Congressional Democrats had already made up their minds about his client’s role in the firings.

Goodling originally refused to testify, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights under the Constitution to avoid the possibility of incriminating herself. The House Committee eventually granted her immunity, opening the way for today’s testimony.

The firings of the US attorneys became one of Washington’s hottest political issues after earlier testimony in which former Deputy Attorney General McNulty told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the terminations were based on “performance-related” issues.

That testimony was later contradicted by AG Gonzales, who apologized to senators for what he characterized as the mishandling of the affair, but insisted that the president has the right to name political appointees who are committed to carrying out the administration’s agenda.

Many legislators said they have been troubled by the manner in which the USAs were asked for their resignations, and also by charges that administration officials may have broken the law by applying political litmus tests to prospective non-political job applicants, who would be covered by the protections of laws governing the Civil Service.

These legislators, mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans as well, have been trying to trace these issues back to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, and to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers. Congress has issued subpoenas demanding testimony and documents from Rove, but the White House has refused, invoking “executive privilege” in what could become a case headed for a long court battle.

A key question in the Rove-Miers issue is whether either official sent or received emails using an account belonging to the Republican National Committee (RNC) instead of the White House. If they did so, it could be a violation of the Presidential Records Act, which mandates the preservation of all communications involving White House employees.

The White House has admitted that some officials did in fact use RNC email accounts for political, non-official communications, and has acknowledged that a number of such emails appear to be missing.

In her testimony today, Goodling repeatedly portrayed herself as an implementer of policies crafted by more senior officials. She said she lacked the authority to carry out her own decisions, and said her principal role was to make recommendations to others.

In one case, however, she acknowledged delaying the appointment of a prospective career prosecutor sought by Jeffrey A. Taylor, interim US attorney for the District of Columbia, reportedly because the candidate was too “liberal” for the non-political position.

The candidate was Seth Adam Meinero, a Howard University law school graduate who had worked on civil rights cases at the Environmental Protection Agency and had served as a special assistant prosecutor in Taylor’s office.

Meinero was eventually hired at Taylor’s insistence, but the issue led to a Justice Department investigation of whether Goodling improperly weighed political affiliation in her reviews of applicants for non-political positions. In another case, according to emails and other documents obtained by Congress, Goodling also played a central role in arranging for the appointment of Tim Griffin, a former RNC official and aide to Rove, as the US attorney in Little Rock.

She also met last summer with two New Mexico Republicans who complained about then-US Attorney David C. Iglesias, who was later fired. In another case, she single-handedly blocked the dismissal of a North Carolina prosecutor who, for more than a year, had been on the list of candidates to be fired.

Goodling’s critics have described her as a divisive figure at the Justice Department since her arrival in 2002, with a reputation for a mercurial temperament and having “sharp elbows” in her dealings with career employees.

Goodling and former AG Chief of Staff Sampson “knew politics, not law,” said Bruce Fein, who served as a senior Justice official during the Reagan administration. “This extent [of] neophytes running the department is highly irregular,” he added.

Goodling is a 1999 graduate of Regent University law school in Virginia Beach, which describes itself as a “Christian university.” Founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, the university’s web site claims that 150 of its students have served in the Bush administration. Goodling told the committee today that she attended a Christian university “because I wanted to obtain justice through public service.”

Goodling, who has six months of prosecutorial experience, was one of a small group of young aides to AG Gonzales to whom he reportedly granted extensive authority and autonomy in their dealings with seasoned Justice Department lawyers.

According to the transcript of an interview with a staffer from the House Judiciary Committee, Goodling is said to have told a senior Justice official shortly before she quit, “All I ever wanted to do was serve this president, this administration, this department.”

The furor over the leadership of the Department of Justice has caused Senate Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, to push for passage of a resolution demanding Gonzales’s resignation. Such a resolution would merely express the “sense of the Senate” and would have no standing in law, since the president is always free to hire and fire Executive Branch officials to whom he gives political appointments.

President Bush, whose relationship with Gonzales dates back to Bush’s campaign for Governor of Texas, has said the attorney general has his complete confidence.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for The Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.